The Health Department is asking those interested in manufacturing or distributing medical marijuana to notify the agency by July 28.

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — State health officials have set a tentative timeline for establishing a medical marijuana industry in North Dakota, with a goal of having the drug available to patients next spring.

The Health Department is asking those interested in manufacturing or distributing medical marijuana to notify the agency by July 28. The requested letters of intent aren't binding but should give officials an idea of the amount of interest.

"We want to know how many are really serious about getting into this, either from a grower standpoint or a distribution standpoint," said Kenan Bullinger, director of the department's medical marijuana division.

North Dakota voters last November approved medical marijuana, and the Legislature earlier this year crafted regulations that Gov. Doug Burgum approved in April. The North Dakota Compassionate Care Act allows the use of medical marijuana for 17 medical conditions, along with terminal illnesses.

Patients must register with the state and they won't be able to grow their own. The Health Department will register two "compassion centers" to make the drug and eight more to dispense it. The agency also has authority to add dispensaries in parts of the state without one.

The department has studied other states, including Minnesota, that have set up medical marijuana systems to get a feel for how long it takes. The letter-of-intent process will give officials an even better idea of the number of applications that might come in, and how long it might take the state to weed through them, Bullinger said.

"We want real, complete and thorough applications," he said. "We want to give as much time as possible."

The Health Department tentatively plans to open the application process in early August and close it at the end of September. The agency would review the applications in October and make selections in early November. Officials estimate it will take manufacturers about six months to set up facilities and grow the first crop of medical marijuana. If the timeline plays out, the drug would be available to patients in April, May or June of next year. That falls within the department's earlier estimates.

"I think we're still on track to deliver 12-18 months after the signing of the bill," Bullinger said.

There's no cost for potential growers or distributors to submit a letter of intent. There will be a non-refundable $5,000 application fee for proposals. Manufacturing operations will also have to pay $110,000 and dispensaries will be charged $90,000 for a two-year certificate.