State will decide on medical marijuana

October 22, 2006

Megan Myers, Argus Leader

About three times a day, Valerie Hannah uses the only drug she says gives her relief from constant pain.

But she can't go to the drugstore to get it, because marijuana is illegal. That's why the Deerfield resident is advocating the medical marijuana measure on the Nov. 7 ballot.

"I think what this measure would do would protect people like me," said Hannah, 42.

If voters approve Initiated Measure 4, South Dakota would join 11 other states that allow some patients to grow and smoke marijuana to help ease their medical problems. Residents of those states still can face federal drug charges.

Conditions that could qualify under the measure include cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, severe or chronic pain, severe nausea, seizures, severe or persistent muscle spasms and multiple sclerosis. The state's health department also could approve other qualifying medical conditions, and patients and their caregivers could receive certification by submitting medical records or a doctor's recommendation to the state.

The law would allow each patient and caregiver to grow up to six plants, possess not more than one ounce and use "small amounts" of the drug for medical purposes.

Supporters of the measure collected more than 22,000 signatures to put the measure on the ballot.

But law enforcement officials say the push to legalize marijuana for medical purposes is dangerous and a front by groups who want to legalize the drug for all. Halting measures such as South Dakota's can stop that, Scott Burns, the nation's deputy drug czar, said last week.

"It's a ruse," Burns said. "It's a way to normalize this activity."

Benefit debated

Marijuana's risks and benefits for medical use have been debated for years.

A 1999 review by the Institute of Medicine - part of the National Academy of Sciences - found marijuana to be "moderately well suited for particular conditions, such as chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting and AIDS wasting."

But that claim was rebutted in a statement by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in April that said "smoked marijuana has no currently accepted or proven medical use in the United States and is not an approved medical treatment."

The South Dakota State Medical Association spoke out against the medical marijuana measure last week.

"The science behind it is not there," said president Dr. Ken Aspaas. "There are many other medications that can be used instead."

But Hannah, who uses marijuana in a vaporized form to ease the chronic pain of nerve damage she suffered as a result of exposure to nerve gas in the first Gulf War, says she's got her own proof of marijuana's benefits.

While a variety of strong painkillers such as morphine are available to her, Hannah said, marijuana is the only drug that eases her pain without making her feel like a "zombie."

"They put you in a stupor," she said. "The quality of my life is zero."

Fear of abuse

State law enforcement officials warn the measure could have effects reaching beyond helping sick people and doesn't justify its potential harm to society.

"If it was honestly and accurately drawn to find pure relief for those people ... I don't think I'd be standing here today," South Dakota Attorney General Larry Long said at a news conference last week denouncing the measure.

Long said the measure also is too broad. He pointed to the measure's language defining "severe or chronic pain" as a qualifying condition. That could open up the allowance to a wide range of people, Long said.

"A 'debilitating medical condition' is much less than it sounds like," Long said.

Sioux Falls police chief Doug Barthel said he fears people would abuse the privilege of having marijuana available and make it available to others.

"From an enforcement aspect, I think it's going to be a nightmare for us," Barthel said.

The measure also sends the wrong message to youths that using marijuana is safe and even healthful, he said.

Hannah said law enforcement officials are using "fear-mongering" to denounce the issue.

"I have a 17-year-old son," she said. "Contrary to popular belief, him watching me vaporize doesn't make him want to try marijuana.

"He's never stolen my 'stash.' "

Reach Megan Myers at 331-2257.

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