The Associated Press | NECN.com
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — An effort to give patients suffering from a debilitating medical condition legal access to marijuana went up in smoke just four years ago, but the ballot measure’s main supporter and opponent both say it has a good chance of passing this year.
A similar South Dakota measure narrowly failed in the 2006 election, receiving 48 percent of the vote.
Sioux Falls resident Emmett Reistroffer, an organizer of the petition drive that put the issue on the Nov. 2 ballot, said national polls suggest growing support for medicinal marijuana and an increasing number of medical groups are supporting patients’ access to the drug.
It’s a matter of compassion, he said, as those dealing with the pain and muscle spasms of multiple sclerosis or the nausea from cancer chemotherapy treatments should have access to something that could help them.
“That way they don’t have to break the law and get it off the streets and risk a violent or criminal encounter, or have to leave the state, which is their only other option,” said Reistroffer, chairman of the campaign committee Yes for Compassion, Yes on 13.
Vermillion Police Chief Art Mabry, president of the South Dakota Association of Police Chiefs, said opponents of Initiated Measure 13 share that compassion but are concerned that the proposed law would lead to increased use of pot by those with no medical need.
Qualified patients would be allowed to carry up to an ounce of marijuana, and they could be tempted to illegally sell that amount on the black market and go back for more, he said.
“It limits the amount that you can have on you at any one time, but it doesn’t limit how many times you can go back, even in a day, and get it,” Mabry said.
But he said he thinks the measure has a good chance of passing as supporters have framed the debate around compassion, and voters will fail to account for some of the law’s potential effects.
“I think the citizens of South Dakota are caring people and they’re going to see that and basically go, ‘What’s the harm?'” Mabry said.
Reistroffer said a sick patient shouldn’t be denied access because someone might break the law, and the measure states that anyone who distributes pot to a non-card holding person can have their card revoked and could face criminal charges.
“It’s very strict on maintaining current laws,” he said.
Fourteen states have legalized medical marijuana.
A similar South Dakota measure narrowly failed in the 2006 election, when it received 48 percent of the vote.
South Dakota’s proposal is more restrictive than laws in other states that have legalized marijuana for medical uses. It bans storefront dispensaries, and instead requires patients or their designated caregivers to cultivate and handle the marijuana. A caregiver would be limited to growing for no more than five patients.
The proposal would legalize marijuana to treat debilitating diseases such as cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, Lou Gehrig’s disease and Alzheimer’s, and conditions such as chronic pain, severe nausea or muscle spasms or seizures.
Mabry said chronic pain can be subjective.
“I’ve got a knee that’ll tell me every time it’s going to rain. Is that chronic pain?” Mabry asked.
Reistroffer said a patient could only receive a prescription for severe, debilitating pain that did not respond to other reasonable medical efforts for at least six months.
Pat Lynch, a supporter who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1990, said he tried using Valium to alleviate the muscle spasms associated with the disease but he couldn’t deal with the side effects.
“It worked, but I felt like a bowl of Jell-O all day long and I couldn’t function,” he said, noting the marijuana stopped the spasms.
Opponents argue that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a legal drug, dronabinol, which contains the active ingredient in marijuana, and doctors can prescribe those pills for patients with pain and chronic illness. Supporters say the dronabinol pills are not as effective as marijuana that is smoked or eaten.
Under the proposed law, the state Health Department would issue registry cards, good for a year, to patients who get doctors to certify that they have medical needs that could be treated with marijuana. Qualified patients and their designated caregivers could not be arrested or prosecuted for having up to an ounce of pot.
The card holder or caregiver could have up to six marijuana plants, which would have to be kept in a locked place.
The law states that no more than one patient or caregiver could grow marijuana on the same property, unless the property is the primary residence for each of the cardholders.
Mabry said that clause is of particular worry in a college town such as Vermillion, where four or five enterprising college-age residents could conceivably embark on a pot growing venture.
The law does, however, say that operating a medical marijuana dispensary, collective or cooperative is not permitted.
“Quite frankly, if you’ve got those four or five caregivers in a neighborhood, it’s going to be a day-and-night operation of people coming and going to pick up their marijuana,” Mabry said.
Reistroffer, 20, said he became interested in medical marijuana because he knows people who have suffered with pain and other problems because they have cancer and other diseases.
Marijuana helped his grandmother through chemotherapy, and his mother has Lupus, a chronic inflammatory disease that can affect various parts of the body such as joints, skin, blood and kidneys.
A “Yes” vote supports legalizing marijuana for registrants and designees. A “No” vote is against the proposed law.