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South Dakota voters asked to legalize medical marijuana

April 6, 2010

Encouraged by a near miss four years ago, supporters of allowing marijuana to be used for medical purposes believe they have a better chance of persuading South Dakota voters this year to legalize the plant for treating pain, nausea and other health problems.

A similar measure failed after getting about 48 percent of the vote in the 2006 election, but a coalition of patients, doctors, nurses and others will start a campaign this summer to explain how marijuana can help people with serious illnesses, said Emmett Reistroffer, one of the campaign organizers.

“We feel like once people learn about the therapeutic uses, they will compassionately support the measure,” Reistroffer said. “If we help them understand marijuana is a medicine, we think we’ll gain their votes.”

Gov. Mike Rounds said he opposes the measure because he believes doctors already have legal medicine available to treat the kinds of symptoms that some people use marijuana to treat.

“I’m still of the opinion that the vast majority of the people that are looking at medical marijuana are winking on the side and have more recreational use intended,” the governor said.

A group called the South Dakota Coalition for Compassion filed more than 30,000 signatures last month, far more than the 16,776 valid signatures needed to put the proposed law on the November ballot for a statewide vote. If voters approve the measure, South Dakota would join 14 other states that have legalized marijuana for medical uses.

The proposal would legalize the limited use of marijuana to treat severe debilitating pain, nausea, seizures and other medical problems. Those eligible would include people suffering from cancer, glaucoma, AIDS, multiple sclerosis and other diseases.

Supporters argue that marijuana also helps ease the pain, muscle spasms and nausea that can accompany chemotherapy treatments for cancer.

The state Health Department would issue registry cards to patients who get doctors to certify that they have medical needs that could be treated with marijuana. Qualified patients and their designated caregivers could not be arrested or prosecuted for having up to one ounce of marijuana. They also could have up to six marijuana plants, which would have to be kept in a locked place.

Reistroffer, who just turned 20, said he became interested in medical marijuana because he knows people who have suffered with pain and other problems because they have cancer and other diseases. His mother has Lupus, a chronic inflammatory disease that can affect various parts of the body such as joints, skin, blood and kidneys. Symptoms include extreme fatigue, headaches and painful or swollen joints.

“When you see their pain, you care about this,” Reistroffer said.

The effort to legalize marijuana for medical use has nothing to do with legalizing it for recreational use, Reistroffer said.

“We are solely focused on making sure these patients are protected. We are solely focused on protecting the sick and dying people,” he said.

Some states that allow marijuana for medical use have reported declines in use among teenagers, Reistroffer said. Once young people understand it is a medicine, the plant no longer has the charm of a black market drug, he said.

If voters approve the measure, people who do not use marijuana for medical purposes will never notice that the law has been changed, Reistroffer said.

“This will not have any effect on the community other than a tremendous relief for the people who need it the most. They will just keep to themselves and seek the relief they need,” Reistroffer said.

But Hughes County Sheriff Mike Leidholdt, who led the effort to defeat the 2006 ballot measure, said he still opposes the medical marijuana measure.

If marijuana can be used for medical purposes, law officers will have a tough time determining whether someone with the drug has a valid prescription, Leidholdt said. Some doctors probably will give prescriptions to nearly everyone who asks, he said.

“It really negates the law by doing that,” the sheriff said.

Even if South Dakota legalized medical marijuana, federal law would continue to outlaw the drug. The federal government has relaxed its prosecution for medical marijuana, but officials have said President Barack Obama opposes any efforts to legalize pot.

Article originally available at: http://www.mitchellrepublic.com/event/apArticle/id/D9ENR1P00/

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