Marijuana advocates optimistic about treatment, voters

By Mark Walker Argus Leader

Six-hundred fifty miles.

That's the length Melissa Mentele has gone in search of relief.

Mentele has lived with chronic pain since a 2012 workplace injury. She was moving a nursing home resident who suddenly resisted, permanently damaging Mentele's arm and shoulder in the process.

Three years and a dozen medications later, she's only found one that helps: cannabis lotion.

It's a cream derived from the cannabis plant, more commonly known as marijuana, and it's illegal in South Dakota. Mentele drove 650 miles to Boulder, Colo., in October and again in February to get the treatment.

The Emery woman is the latest advocate attempting to legalize medical marijuana in South Dakota. She filed paperwork with the attorney general's office this week that could lead to the state becoming the next to allow medical marijuana.

Similar efforts by others failed in 2006 and 2010. Mentele's proposal will face opposition from law enforcement and the medical establishment, which worry about unintended consequences.

But medical marijuana backers also believe times are changing, and that the adoption of medical marijuana in other states, including Colorado and Minnesota, could change the discussion here.

Supporters include people like George Hendrickson, whose 2-year-old son Eliyah has a rare form of intractable epilepsy known as Dravet syndrome.

Until recently, Eliyah's parents slept in shifts to monitor his seizures at night.

"People don't realize when you start taking care of a child with Dravet you don't have a savings account," Hendrickson said. "We have a $16,000 breathing machine… to declog his lungs so he can breathe because he gets all kind of respiratory issues because of his Dravet."

George Hendrickson, whose son Eliyah was diagnosed with Dravet Syndrome when he was 5 months old, talks about medical marijuana as a treatment for his son.

The disorder affects one in 30,000 children, according to the Dravet Foundation. Recently, though, a compound found in marijuana called CDB has been discussed as a possible treatment.

Hendrickson has repeatedly traveled to Colorado with his son to see a doctor, but the trip is expensive and has to be done in stages because of Eliyah's condition.

The Colorado doctor can't legally prescribe medical cannabis for him, so he instead recommended a series of other medication that help manage his condition. Eliyah receives 10 doses in the morning, three at noon, three in the evening and three more at night.

Hendrickson said he and his wife have contemplated moving to Colorado, but worry about finding jobs and housing. Instead, they hope South Dakota voters might support medical marijuana.

Kristin Hendrickson gives her son, Eliyah Hendrickson, 2, fluticasone in an AeroChamber on Thursday at their home in Sioux Falls. Eliyah was diagnosed with Dravet Syndrome when he was five-months-old by a Colorado doctor. "With Dravet Syndrome then comes a whole grab bag of neurological and some physical issues," George Hendrickson, the boy's dad, said. (Photo: Joe Ahlquist / Argus Leader)

Mentele founded the South Dakota Family Coalition in November. The organization helps put South Dakota families like the Hendricksons in touch with treatment options in Colorado.

"Our primary focus is educating and helping people find the resources they need, to get the medicine they need," Mentele said.

Her next goal is to bring those treatments here. Mentele needs to collect more than 13,000 signatures to put her proposal to legalize medical marijuana to a statewide public vote in 2016.

The initiative would allow qualifying patients to receive a registration card from the South Dakota Health Department that details their medical condition. Non-South Dakota residents would be allowed to use registration cards from other states.

Patients would be allowed 3 ounces of marijuana and a minimum of six plants if cultivation is allowed. Quantities of other marijuana products would be determined by the state Health Department.

South Dakota voters previously defeated attempts to legalize medical marijuana. In 2006, 48 percent of voters supported a ballot measure. Four years later, support fell to 37 percent.

The South Dakota Medical Association opposed those attempts but a spokesperson said it won't take a stance on the new proposal until it knows for sure whether is will be on the 2016 ballot.

Attorney General Marty Jackley said he would only support medical marijuana legalization if the treatments were backed by the FDA, if prescriptions can be written only by physicians, and if products can be only dispensed by a pharmacy.

"I do hope that medicine may reach a point in which some form of marijuana or THC can safely be prescribed under a doctor's care for treatment," Jackley said.

George Hendrickson, whose son Eliyah was diagnosed with Dravet Syndrome when he was five-months-old by a Colorado doctor, mixes different vitamins for his son on Thursday at their home in Sioux Falls. "We know of other children with Dravet that couldn't walk and talk until they went on CBD--the cannabis oil--then within 5 to 6 months these kids would cut their seizures down by 90 to 95 percent or more and would learn to walk and talk." (Photo: Joe Ahlquist / Argus Leader)
Sioux Falls Police Chief Doug Barthel is against legalizing marijuana for medical use. He thinks most groups pushing for medical marijuana are just looking for a way around the law to use it for recreation.

"I certainly sympathize with the very small percentage of people who have illnesses and ailments that marijuana has been able to help," Barthel. "I think there is certainly an opening to get some sort of FDA approval for that to get them help."

Twenty-three states now allow the use of medical marijuana. A handful of other have been discussing whether or not they should join the medical marijuana movement.

Morgan Fox of the Marijuana Policy Project said discussions surrounding medical cannabis have become more mainstream. He said as evidence continues to suggest medical cannabis can be managed effectively an not abused, other states will give it serious consideration.

Christopher Brown of Americans for Safe Access, which lobbies for medical marijuana nationally, said patients such as Mentele who suffer from chronic pain can benefit from the product.

"There is a lot of belief that if you open the option up to people, you will see a decrease in opiate dependency," Brown said.

Mentele said opiates were not effective for her. The cannabis cream has worked, though.

"I put it on my arms," she said. "From the tips of my fingers to my arm pits and I was pain-free."

She went to Colorado twice for three days each to use the lotion. She said the effects last for about a month and a half. The trip is too expensive to make more frequently, though.

On Thursday she'll begin collecting signatures for her ballot measure at a kickoff event at the downtown Sioux Falls library.

"It's hard," Mentele said about not being able to get the lotion in South Dakota. "I want to go back to work. I want to be the mom I was before this. I want to have a life."