With election day little more than a week away, proponents of South Dakota's medical marijuana initiative are increasingly nervous about the measure's prospects in the face of a coordinated onslaught by the state's Republican political establishment, state and local law enforcement, and even the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office). Given South Dakota's social conservatism and a number of hot-button other issues on the ballot, including abortion and gay marriage, the assault by law enforcement only makes voter approval of the measure more difficult. But with no polling on the issue in the state since 2002 (when it got 64% approval), it is hard to gauge exactly where the vote is likely to go.
Known on the ballot as Initiated Measure 4, the medical marijuana measure would allow patients who suffer from specified medical conditions, have the okay of their doctor, and register with the state to use marijuana to alleviate their conditions. The measure also allows registered patients or their caregivers to grow up to six marijuana plants. If the measure passes, South Dakota would become the 12th state to legalize marijuana. If the measure fails, South Dakota would become the first state where voters explicitly rejected medical marijuana.
Beginning late last week, the organized opposition began fighting in earnest with a series of press conferences featuring Attorney General Larry Long (whom organizers were forced to successfully sue over biased ballot language), local law enforcement officials, and deputy drug czar Scott Burns. Burns called medical marijuana "a con" and accused initiative supporters of playing on the sympathies of voters to advance a dangerous agenda.
"It's a step backwards in South Dakota and a step backwards nationally," said Burns at a Sioux Falls press conference last Friday. "Do not fall for the con."
"The risk far outweighs the benefits," said Minnehaha County (Sioux Falls) Sheriff Mike Milstead at the same widely televised and reported press conference. "There's great concern about how easily this marijuana could fall into the wrong hands."
Some South Dakota law enforcement officials have gone further in their arguments against the measure. In a conversation with Drug War Chronicle Thursday, Hughes County (Pierre) Sheriff Mike Leidholt complained that initiative language barring registered patients from being prosecuted as drugged drivers because of residual metabolites in their systems would result in them being able to get away with driving while intoxicated. "If we can't test for the metabolite, how are we to enforce the law, or is that a free pass?" he asked.
Leidholt also expressed concern that marijuana grown for registered patients would escape into the larger market. "This measure allows any patient or caregiver to have up to six marijuana plants," he said. "One marijuana plant can produce up to 13,000 joints. If you have that much, what happens to the rest of it?"
[Editor's Note: We report, you decide. Assuming a joint weighs between one-half gram and one gram, that comes to somewhere between 15 and 30 pounds of smokeable bud. By our calculations, it would take a marijuana plant the size of a full-grown oak tree to produce that many joints.]
Leidholt conceded that marijuana may help a small number of seriously ill people in the state, but argued that that does not outweigh the need to keep marijuana off the streets. "I feel bad for those people, but the dangers are too great," he said.
That argument wasn't flying with Valerie Hannah of Deerfield, a combat medic in the Gulf War who know suffers chronic pain from nerve damage and who is serving as the primary spokesperson for South Dakotans for Medical Marijuana, the group behind the initiative. "We really need this for patients who are truly ill so they can have another means of release," she told the Chronicle.
Hannah and former Denver police officer Tony Ryan, who now lives in Sioux Falls, are the group's public face. Both are appearing in TV commercials airing around the state -- when they can squeeze in among all the abortion, gay marriage, tobacco tax, elected office, and other campaign commercials that are cluttering the airwaves.
"What law enforcement is doing is a real disappointment, but my biggest disappointment is Larry Long bringing in the national deputy drug czar to propagandize at press conferences," she said. "They're really starting to pull out the drug war money and going to town with it."
Hannah is in a lonely fight. No other medical marijuana patient in the state has yet stood up to be counted alongside her. But that is not surprising in a state where anyone who admits to marijuana use could be served with a search warrant and ordered to submit to a drug test, then prosecuted for "unlawful ingestion" of marijuana.
"People are scared here," Hannah said. "Not only are they scared to come out, some people who use medical marijuana have even told me they voted against it because they were afraid law enforcement would look at their ballots and somehow persecute them. It is past time for people to get over their fears and realize this is really all about sick and dying people."
While Hannah other initiative supporters are working frantically to secure victory on November 7, the outcome is "kind of iffy," she said. "Faced with all these false claims from law enforcement and the fear in the air in this state, I don't know how this will come out."
Hannah held out some hope though, citing surprising support among farmers and ranchers in the sparsely-populated, libertarian-leaning northwest part of the state. "That is good, but most of the votes are in the East, especially in Sioux Falls," she noted. With some 177,000 residents in the metro area, Sioux Falls accounts for about one-quarter of the state's population.
"Western South Dakota is a place where outlaws went to hide from the law -- and they stayed -- so it may be fertile ground for medical marijuana even if just for the tax money. But if they lose in Sioux Falls, they lose the entire state," said University of South Dakota political science Professor David Vick. "The city has been growing rapidly, and the small towns around there have become suburbs, and they vote like suburbs," he told the Chronicle.
Vick had a hard time imagining that the measure would succeed. "My opinion is that it will probably not pass," he said. "On the East side of the state, you tend to have values voters who vote along religious lines and conservative political lines. The only way I see this passing is if people vote for it in a backlash against government intrusion or fiscal conservatism. Of course, there are people who have found assistance from medical marijuana or know someone who has, and they could vote for it."
It now looks like an uphill battle in South Dakota, but we will not really know until the votes are counted.