Feds, Measure 4 proponents at odds over pot

October 19, 2006

Ryan Woodard, Rapid City Journal (SD)

A White house drug official, the state attorney general and local law officials panned a proposed measure to legalize medical marijuana at a news conference Thursday at the Rapid City Police Department.

“This is about asking yourself whether making more drugs available in the state of South Dakota to young people is a good thing,” deputy drug czar Scott Burns said of Initiated Measure 4, which, if passed on Nov. 7, would legalize marijuana for medicinal use.

That would include those with debilitating illness such as cancer and glaucoma.

Burns was joined at the news conference by Pennington County State’s Attorney Glenn Brenner, South Dakota Attorney General Larry Long, Pennington County deputy sheriff Dave Bramblee and State Rep. Don Van Etten, who all spoke out against the measure, saying it would cause medical and legal problems.

Burns, who flew in from the White House where he works as National Drug Policy deputy director, called the measure a “con” to make the drug legal and that, if passed, it would “normalize this endeavor of smoking marijuana” and lead to more access to the drug for young people.

Long denounced the measure, too, saying that the way it is written goes beyond merely helping those who need it.

“If Initiated Measure No. 4 was narrowly tapered to provide relief simply to those people who have serious and terminal medical conditions, I probably wouldn’t be here today,” he said.

He said the law, which would make it legal for people with “debilitating medical conditions,” to use marijuana, would be subject to abuse because chronic pain is included under that distinction and that the term could be interpreted too broadly.

Valerie Hannah, a Deerfield native who has used marijuana to ease ailments stemming from her exposure to sarin gas in the Gulf War, disagreed.

“If a physician is upright, and the person is upright, I don’t see it being abused that way,” she said. “Everything can be abused in one sense or another. (Long should) stop politicking and using scare tactics.”

Hannah has a degenerative illness similar to multiple sclerosis. Her illness causes her deep inner-muscle pain, which marijuana has helped alleviate, she said.

“Other drugs put you in more of a stupor,” she added. “(And) there’s never been a case of anyone overdosing (on) marijuana.”

Long also said the measure also includes language that would provide a “get out of jail free card” to medical marijuana users and their caregivers, who would be allowed to posses the drug if the measure to passes.

Section 11 of Initiated Measure 4 reads, “no qualifying patient or caregiver who possesses a registry identification card issued pursuant to this Act may be arrested, prosecuted, or penalized in any manner, or be denied any right or privilege.”

Long said that means either the patient or caregiver of the patient would be immune from any type of arrest if they possess the card, which would be approved by the health department.

One of the sponsors of the initiative, Hermosa resident Bob Newland, said a few words were left out of the bill, leaving it to the broad interpretation Long suggested.

“That read broadly would suggest a patient can commit any crime he wants with impunity,” Newland said. “The word ‘for any act committed pursuant to this act’ should have been put at the end of that sentence.”

He said the courts could fix the problem.

“The courts are allowed to interpret a law based on the intent of the drafter, or in this case of the people who voted for it,” he said. “Obviously, we did not intend to allow somebody with a marijuana department of health registry card to be able to sell marijuana or to be able to commit any other crime.”

Burns said that legalizing marijuana would vastly increase the amount of marijuana smokers, increasing it to “at least” the current numbers of cigarette smokers in the U.S., about 60 million. He estimated the current number at 15 million.

But Newland maintained that the bill is merely a measure to help those who are sick.

“It’s for anyone who needs medical marijuana who isn’t already buying it off the street,” he said.

He said Long should quit “nitpicking.”

“Attorney General Long should be working with doctors and patients to assure that sick, disabled, and dying people have safe access to the medicines they need.”

Contact Ryan Woodard at 394-8412 or ryan.woodard@rapidcityjournal.com

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