Marina Riker, Associated Press
FILE - This Feb. 17, 2016 file photo shows marijuana plants at a home in Honolulu.

SALT LAKE CITY — State officials took a first big step Monday toward making medical cannabis available to Utah patients.

The Utah Department of Health and the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food started soliciting bids for an electronic verification system and inventory control system that will form the backbone of the program.

"We really can’t do anything program wide until this is in its place," said Drew Rigby, the agriculture department's cannabis program manager.

"Our ultimate goal is to get patients product as fast, as efficient, as cheap as possible," he said. "All of this is building toward that end."

The Utah Legislature legalized medical marijuana in December. The law directs the state agriculture department to issue licenses for the cultivation, processing and laboratory testing while the state health department will issue medical cannabis cards to patients, register medical providers and license medical cannabis pharmacies.

The computer systems will track cannabis plants from the time they are 8 inches tall with an ID tag through cultivation, processing and distribution. The agencies expect to sign a five-year contract worth up to $5 million with the winning bidder.

Rich Oborn, the health department's director of the Center for Medical Cannabis, said electronic tracking is a critical piece of the program.

"We need to able to track the batches that the product is coming from," he said, adding the department wants to be prepared in the event there's an issue with a product.

The system also aims to ensure nothing goes missing, including parts of the plant that are thrown away in processing.

"It’s critical to prevent any diversion to the black market," Oborn said.

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The computer system will allow patients to apply for and renew medical cannabis cards. It will be used to order medical marijuana from the state's central fill pharmacy and track all purchases. It will also maintain a record of the amount of cannabis in cultivation facilities, processing facilities and pharmacies, and monitor product testing by independent laboratories.

The departments expect to award a contract to a software provider in May. The system must be up and running by March 2020 when the state's medical marijuana program is set to start.