When a statewide poll conducted this January found overwhelming popular support for industrial hemp and the use of marijuana as a medicine, local drug reformers dared to hope that the state legislature would respond. That didn't happen, and now activists are by-passing the lawmakers and taking the issues directly to the voters.
In their session, which ended early this month, South Dakota legislators killed separate medical marijuana and hemp production bills despite compelling testimony from patients and the broad popular support evidenced by the poll, conducted for the South Dakota Industrial Hemp Council and the Marijuana Policy Project. The survey of 505 residents in the sparsely-populated, heavily agricultural state found that 85% supported allowing farmers to grow hemp, while 81% approved of changing the law to allow for medicinal use of marijuana and 95% opposed jailing medipot users.
"This just shows how hopeless the legislature is," Bob Newland told DRCNet. Newland, founder of the state hemp council, president of SoDakNORML (http://www.sodaknorml.org) and point man behind the South Dakota Cannabis Coalition, which is sponsoring the industrial hemp and medical marijuana initiative petition drives, explained further. "We provided good, solid testimony to these people who are supposed to represent South Dakota voters -- especially South Dakota farmers -- and they listen instead to the ridiculous testimony of the Highway Patrol about how pot growers will hide their plants in hemp fields."
"It's the same all over the country," growled the publisher and photographer from the Black Hills town of Hermosa. "These legislators have no sense of shame or dignity or what is absurd. How can someone tell a quadriplegic who gets thrown out of his wheelchair by spastic paralysis that he can't have this stuff? What are they so frightened of?"
Newland and supporters -- SoDakNORML has about 80 active members, he says -- are not waiting any longer for the legislature to act. "I've begun the process," he told DRCNet. "I have submitted the language of the industrial hemp initiative to the Legislative Research Council, which basically just reviews and cleans up the language, and we will begin our one-year window to collect signatures on May 6th."
The measures would appear on the November 2002 general election ballot, along with another Newland-sponsored measure. Justice Unlimited (http://www.justiceunlimited.org) has already gathered 25,000 signatures putting on the ballot a constitutional amendment allowing anyone to argue the merit, validity and applicability of the law, including the sentencing laws, in state court.
"The hemp proposal simply says anyone may possess, cultivate, sell, or manufacture industrial hemp," Newland explained, "and we'll probably throw in a less-than-one-percent THC requirement, but that language isn't final."
The medical marijuana initiative awaits a ruling from the Supreme Court in the Oakland Cannabis Co-op, which heard oral arguments on Wednesday. (See related story above.)
"We've been talking to the Marijuana Policy Project folks, and they will help us craft an appropriate measure once the ruling comes down," Newland told DRCNet. "Even if they don't have common sense in the federal courts, we're going to give South Dakotans the chance to have some common sense in the local courts.
"Once we have the language down, we'll start the medical marijuana petition drive, probably around July 1st," he added.
Based on recent polling and the success of the constitutional amendment petition-drive, as well as a wave of successful medical marijuana initiatives in other states, Newland is very confident both petitions will easily gather the necessary 13,000 signatures to be placed on the ballot.
It will take "36 hours," he told the Yankton Press & Dakotan, "two days," he told the Custer County Chronicle.
"Well, that's a little bit of hyperbole," Newland chuckled. "But even with our all-volunteer force, we could easily do this in three months. Heck, we'll hit the college campuses on hemp before the semester is out and bang, bang, bang, there's four or five thousand signatures right off the bat. We have people coming out in droves to work the hemp petitions and if we still need signatures on hemp by July, I imagine most of them will carry the medical marijuana petition, too."
"We don't have any big national funding," Newland told DRCNet. "National NORML doesn't really have the money, and MPP helped out with the survey -- which, by the way, was the best two grand we ever spent. Now we know four out of five people agree with us."
For Newland, hemp and medical marijuana are two parts of a three-pronged cannabis liberation strategy. "Ultimately, we'll go after marijuana prohibition," he said, "but this is a much easier sell. With these issues we can, for the time being, separate out the polarization that arises around the issue of recreational drug use. We don't have to worry about people worried about their kids," he explained.
"Marijuana is demonstratively less dangerous than tobacco or alcohol," Newland said, "and there is no reason for people to be thrown in jail because of it. Period."
Newland also asked DRCNet to let everyone know that the initiative drive will start building up steam with the first South Dakota Hemp Hoe Down. "This will be huge," said Newland, "maybe a thousand people, plus more members for SoDakNORML."
If the snow has melted by then (or even if it hasn't), it will be Sunday, April 1st, at Classics Bar & Grill in Piedmont. That's Exit 48 on I-90.