With Election Day still more than four months off, the South Dakota Coalition for Compassion is laying the groundwork for South Dakota to become the country's next medical marijuana state. The campaign is confident of victory in November, and low-key for now with no organized opposition in sight, but promises to progressively ramp-up its efforts through the summer and fall.
The measure cites the usual list of diseases (cancer, glaucoma, HIV, MS, Alzheimer's) and conditions (wasting syndrome, intractable pain, severe nausea, seizures, spasms) for which marijuana could be used medicinally, and includes a provision allowing the state Department of Health to add other diseases or conditions. Upon getting a physician's recommendation, the patient and his caregiver (if any) would register with the department and receive registration ID cards.
South Dakota gained notoriety in 2006 when it became the only state to see voters reject a medical marijuana legalization initiative, defeating it by a margin of 52% to 48%. This year, the outcome will be different, the coalition said. "I am very confident we're going to get it this time around," predicted coalition spokesman Emmett Reistroffer.
The political atmosphere, both locally and nationally, is certainly better this time around. In 2006, the medical marijuana initiative faced in Republican Larry Long a South Dakota attorney general strongly opposed to it and a Bush administration concerned enough to send officials from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) to the state to campaign against it. Now, recently-appointed Attorney General Marty Jackley, while, like Long, a Republican, is on the fence on the issue, and the Obama administration seems much less inclined to interfere in a state initiative vote.
"I talked to Marty Jackley, and he is nowhere near as opposed to medical marijuana as Larry Long was," said Reistroffer. "His ballot explanation was very fair, unlike 2006, when MPP had to sue then Attorney General Larry Long to make him write a fair explanation," he said.
"Jackley told me he was open to a carefully managed program, but wasn't prepared to specifically support our proposal. What he's afraid of is what could be hidden in the details," Reistroffer related. "Jackley was appointed to office and is running for election the same day as our ballot measure. I don't expect him to support us, but I do expect that he will remain neutral."
Jackley's office did not return Chronicle calls asking his position on the initiative.
The coalition has enlisted some potent advocates with credentials that could help push the effort over the top. One is Tony Ryan, a retired police officer and member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). "We are doing well, we seem to be well-received, we've been speaking to groups and have more invitations coming up," he said. "There seems to be a trend toward people being more accepting of the idea that we need to change our approach to drugs, and when you're talking specifically about medical marijuana and you can point to the ample evidence it is beneficial, people seem to be a lot more accepting than they were even four years ago."
Ryan was optimistic at the measure's prospects for passage this year. "Now that the American Medical Association has come out and said we need to think about getting it off Schedule I, things are really falling into place. This isn't about marijuana, this is about helping sick people -- that's the message we have to hammer home."
Another well-placed advocate is state Rep. Martha Vanderlinde (D-Sioux Falls), a practicing nurse who introduced a medical marijuana bill in the legislature, where it promptly went nowhere. "The South Dakota legislature is very conservative," she said. "They told me it was political suicide to sponsor that bill, but I felt it was necessary. There are people I talk to who say they want it, but they don't want to say so out loud," Vanderlinde explained.
"Medical marijuana is just one more tool in the kit for people with severe, debilitating medical conditions to use for relief," said Vanderlinde. "Working with cancer patients, MS patients, and others, I've seen it help so many people relieve their pain, their anxiety, their spasms. As a nurse working in the field, I see this as a simple herb that could help people, and that means a lot. Legalization for medical use is the only way to go."
This will be the year, she said. "With the AMA supporting medical marijuana, with the past president of the local MS Society on board, with Emmett and Tony crisscrossing the state to get the knowledge out there, the word is getting out. We want South Dakota to be the 15th state to legalize medical marijuana."
While the coalition is pleased with the AMA's acknowledgement of marijuana's medical benefits and call for a review of its scheduling, it's not so impressed with the local affiliate. The South Dakota Medical Association has been a disappointment, said Reistroffer. "We've received no support from them. They haven't even returned phone calls or emails. I'm hoping we can get them to remain neutral."
Things are about to start heating up, the coalition said. "We've got a little money set aside for some ads and we're ready to make a TV commercial featuring the former head of the state MS Society if the funding comes through," said Reistroffer. "Tony Ryan is in the middle of a long list of speaking engagements. Things are starting to pick up for us now, and July will be a big month, and the closer to the election we get, the more intense the campaign will get. I'm meeting with the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) this week to probably set up our first polling."
"We helped draft the initiative and provided some strategic advice," said MPP spokesman Mike Meno. "The local campaign will be taking off soon. This almost passed in 2006; now, it's just a matter of getting people out to the polls."
"We will be reaching out to whoever we can," said Ryan. "We will be targeting college campuses," he said, noting the formation of a Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) chapter at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. "And we'll be using word of mouth. We'll be going places we didn't go in 2006, like some of those rural counties in the center of the state that voted strongly against it."
So far, so good in South Dakota. But let's see what the next four months bring.