Bill pits attorney general against medical-marijuana proponents

October 31, 2006

Ryan Woodard, Rapid City Journal (SD)

Voters will decide next week whether South Dakota citizens should legally be allowed to use medical marijuana to treat symptoms caused by certain medical conditions. The controversial Initiated Measure 4 would allow people with “debilitating” medical conditions to grow, possess and use small amounts of medical marijuana.

Proponents say the bill would enable those who have painful conditions to legally ease their pain.

“I think it’s very important for all the sick people who want to have choices in the way they treat their medical conditions,” said Valerie Hannah, a Deerfield resident who has used marijuana to ease pain resulting from her exposure to sarin gas during the Gulf War.

Rapid City resident Cynthia Siragusa, a multiple-sclerosis sufferer, agreed.

“I’m a decent person, and I don’t want to be a criminal because I use this to alleviate my pain,” she said.

But opponents of the bill say that it is too broad and would increase the overall use of marijuana.

“My problem with this bill is, this isn’t about just getting marijuana to people who have a serious medical condition,” Attorney General Larry Long said. “This is about getting marijuana to a lot of other people, too.”

“This bill is big enough you can drive a truck through it,” he said.

A primary argument Long has with the bill is section 11, which he has called a “get-out-of-jail-free card.”

The wording in that section states “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.”

The wording, which is designed to protect those who medically use marijuana and those who care for them, allows the holder of the card immunity for any crime, Long said.

Hannah said wording problems with the bill could be fixed after it passes.

“Anything that we have in the disagreement with Mr. Long can be settled by proper channels in the Legislature,” she said.

She said Long could help South Dakotans for Medical Marijuana instead of badmouthing the bill.

“If he would only sit down with our organization and talk about this wording with us … but he hasn’t done that,” she said. “But he’s been very successful in using the wording to scare South Dakotans into thinking his way.”

One of the sponsors of the bill, Hermosa resident Bob Newland, said wording was inadvertently left out.

“The word ‘for any act committed pursuant to this act’ should have been put at the end of that sentence,” Newland said.

Long said he is not interested in fixing the bill in the legislature, especially since the fix couldn’t be done until next summer, when the session closes.

“What are we going to do between November and July?” he asked.

He doesn’t believe that a mistake was made in drafting the bill.

“I’m not willing to give them the benefit of saying that they over drafted it by accident,” Long said. “I think it was carefully drafted by someone who knew exactly what they were doing to make it look like this was a tightly controlled, regulated system that would allow people with serious medical conditions to use marijuana.”

Other points of controversy in the bill have included the severity of illnesses covered under the bill.

“You’re supposed to have a debilitating medical condition,” Long said. “They list a lot of serious ones. But it says any condition that causes chronic pain.”

Long said chronic pain is too broad.

“How many people are going to take advantage of that?” he asked.

Hannah said stipulations in the bill prevent it from being taken advantage of.

“First off, you’ve got to understand the definition of chronic pain,” she said. “You’ve got to be debilitated for over two years and have to have an underlying cause that’s not really curable.”

“So, if a doctor’s being true to himself, he’s not going to write the person with a sprained ankle or a backache a recommendation for this or a certificate for this,” she said.

Siragusa says that M.S. causes her pain on a daily basis — pain that prescription drugs don’t help.

“As far as the symptoms, there really isn’t as much for medicines,” she said.

She said marijuana loosens her up when she wakes up in the morning.

“When I wake up, I’m so stiff, I’m almost paralyzed,” she said.

Medical marijuana bills have been passed in 11 other states, Hannah said.

Long said he has been told Initiated Measure 4 was crafted after those bills, which he has not read and compared with the South Dakota measure.

Initiated Measure 4 would permit the patient and caregiver alike to possess not more than six marijuana plants and 1 ounce of “usable” marijuana.

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

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