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Clarence F. “Rick” Olson, Fargo, Published September 21 2013

Letter: ND pharm ownership law lives on

Two new pharmacies opened in the Fargo-West Fargo area. Not exactly big news, right?

While I am happy for the owners of the pharmacies because they’ve chosen to open in our communities and will hopefully be successful, it should be noted that the reason why independently owned drug stores flourish in North Dakota, and few if any chain pharmacies exist in the state, is a matter of state law.

A little background

North Dakota is the only state in the country that has a law forbidding anyone except for a licensed pharmacist in good standing from owning a pharmacy. The law was enacted by the Legislature in 1963. Its passage came about as a way to prevent physicians from selling prescription medications directly to their patients. Unfortunately, the effect of the law has been to stifle competition in the pharmacy business, and to prevent non-pharmacist owners such as national big-box retailers that do business in this state, from operating pharmacies in their stores.

Recent attempts to change law

In 2009 and in 2011, bills were introduced in the Legislature to repeal the law. During each session, the bills were introduced in the House of Representatives. Both were defeated on the House floor, following do-not-pass recommendations from the House Industry, Business and Labor Committee. During the 2011 session, the bill to repeal the pharmacy ownership law only got 35 “yes” votes.

A grass-roots group called North Dakotans for Affordable Healthcare came forward with two initiated measure campaigns to repeal the law. Their efforts spanned from 2009-10 and from 2011-12. The 2009-10 effort did garner enough signatures for the measure to appear on the November 2010 general election ballot, except for one very important issue. The group neglected to attach a sheet containing a list of the names and addresses of the measure’s sponsoring committee members to each petition booklet submitted.

The group launched another initiated measure effort during the 2011-12 time period. This time, the group struggled to obtain financial contributions as well as petition signatures for the November 2012 ballot.

There was no wind under their sails, nor much interest, following an embarrassing rebuke the group took as a result of the paperwork snafu from its previous effort. In April 2012, the group suspended efforts to get the measure onto the ballot, and went out of existence.

Will law ever change?

This is one of those issues that is kryptonite to many people. The opposition bills it as being a threat to small-town businesses. They’ll give you the popular catchphrase, “It’s the North Dakota way” to protect our small-town businesses.

I have a problem with the lack of competition that this law forces upon the public, and prescription drug prices in many cases are higher as a result. Companies such as Thrifty White Drug and CVS Pharmacy – two large chain store pharmacy companies are allowed to operate pharmacies. On the other hand, the nation’s largest drug store company, Walgreens, cannot operate a pharmacy in their single North Dakota location in Fargo because Walgreens is not majority-owned by pharmacists. Imagine that: A drug store that cannot sell a prescription?

Thrifty White Drug is employee-owned, and is majority-owned by pharmacists. Therefore, that company is in compliance with the law. Meanwhile, CVS Pharmacy is allowed to operate its locations in North Dakota, since CVS acquired Osco Drug in a merger of the two companies. Osco Drug was in business in 1963 when the law was enacted, and thus, the Osco locations that were in business at the time were grandfathered in.


Having been a member of the sponsoring committee of both of the ill-fated measures on the pharmacy ownership law, I believe the chances of the law ever changing are slimmer as each day passes. The Legislature will never change the law. Efforts at getting the issue onto the ballot have failed.

It may be time for one of the big-box retailers, or a coalition of them, to take the lead on this issue, and challenge the law in federal court.

Olson is a regular contributor to The Forum’s commentary and opinion pages. Email rickolson@cableone.net.