It’s hard to get stoked about repealing medical marijuana

August 8, 2023 8:03 pm
(Photo illustration by Getty Images)

(Photo illustration by Getty Images)

One feature of South Dakota’s citizen ballot initiative process is that it values effort over expertise. Consider the case of Travis Ismay. The Newell man would like the 2024 election to include a ballot initiative repealing the legality of the state’s medical marijuana program. 

Ismay is full of praise for the Legislative Research Council and its work getting his petition in order. Next came an opinion from Attorney General Marty Jackley saying that the ballot issue, if approved by voters, would do exactly what Ismay wants: make all possession, use, cultivation, sale and manufacture of medical marijuana a crime. 

The technical aspects of getting a ballot issue ready are likely the easy part for Ismay. Now comes the effort — collecting 17,509 signatures to get the initiative on the 2024 ballot. 

Collecting that many signatures is always difficult, but may prove even tougher for Ismay as the 2020 ballot initiative legalizing medical marijuana was endorsed by 70% of voters. It seems that people in this state liked the idea of using marijuana as a way to ease medical complaints. 

As he begins the arduous task of collecting signatures, Ismay should ask himself if 70% of voters could really be that wrong.

The medical marijuana initiative was approved, despite the best efforts of the South Dakota State Medical Association as it campaigned against it. Perhaps the medical marijuana initiative was overshadowed to some extent by a constitutional amendment on the same ballot that not only sought to legalize medical marijuana but recreational marijuana as well. As reticent as South Dakotans can be about changing the state constitution, that amendment, since nullified by the courts, passed with 54% of the vote. 

The possible repeal of the medical marijuana program means that three years of legislation and investment would amount to a wasted effort. A quick count from the LRC website shows that from 2021 to 2023 the Legislature considered more than 50 medical marijuana bills. The law that Ismay seeks to repeal is 16 pages long with 95 sections.

While lawmakers worked on getting the medical marijuana regulations just the way they wanted them, entrepreneurs were taking advantage of the new law. According to data from the state’s medical cannabis website, state certifications have been approved for 77 dispensaries, 18 manufacturers and 41 cultivators. 

Granted, some of these businesses may see their role in medical marijuana as just a foot in the door for the day when the state’s voters once again approve recreational marijuana. Still, that’s quite a bit of small business investment and quite a few jobs to flush away just three years after the program got started. 

Aside from the legislative and administrative work needed to get the program going and the investment by new businesses across the state, a repeal of the program would have its most lasting ramifications on the patients who have come to rely on the relief offered by medical marijuana. According to the state website, as of July the state has issued more than 11,300 approved patient cards.

Despite scoffing from the medical establishment, patients have found real, ongoing relief from their use of medical marijuana. State rules allow the use of medical cannabis for a “debilitating medical condition.” This can include “cachexia or wasting syndrome; severe, debilitating pain; severe nausea; seizures; or severe and persistent muscle spasms, including those characteristic of multiple sclerosis.” Putting a repeal of the medical marijuana program on the ballot would only add to the anxiety of people who are using cannabis to relieve symptoms of serious medical conditions.

Also overlooked in Ismay’s ballot effort is how a repeal would affect the state’s tribes, some of which have been quick in the past to set their own rules for the sale and use of marijuana. Should the repeal be approved by voters, as sovereign nations the tribes may claim the ability to keep medical marijuana legal, cornering the market.

Of course, signing a petition is not the same as actually voting for an initiated measure. However, as he begins the arduous task of collecting signatures, Ismay should ask himself if 70% of voters could really be that wrong. And, if he can get his initiated measure on the ballot, can he persuade at least 21% of them to vote to repeal a program they only recently overwhelmingly endorsed. 




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Dana Hess
Dana Hess

Dana Hess spent more than 25 years in South Dakota journalism, editing newspapers in Redfield, Milbank and Pierre. He's retired and lives in Brookings, working occasionally as a freelance writer.