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If a vote to legalize marijuana for medical use in South Dakota comes down to money, as many modern elections do, the effort to pass a statewide referendum to legalize the drug for medicinal use in 2016 may face an uphill battle.

A national pro-marijuana group that pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into a past medical-marijuana ballot measure campaign in South Dakota does not plan to financially support a potential 2016 initiative in South Dakota, according to a spokesman for the group.

The group’s decision not to provide financial support for a similar South Dakota ballot issue in 2010 seemed to doom that effort, after the group spent more than $400,000 on a 2006 South Dakota medical-marijuana initiative that nearly passed.

Melissa Mentele, of Emery, S.D., and the leader of the new initiative to legalize marijuana for medical use in South Dakota, said she’s hopeful that her effort can still prevail due to other fundraising as well as having a well-organized group of volunteers. Finally, she hopes that shifting attitudes across the country about marijuana and its potential medical benefits will carry make the effort successful.

“We’d love to have commercials and all of that,” Mentele said, “but if it takes groups of us getting into cars every weekend and driving around the state talking to people, that’s what we’ll do.”

Backers say marijuana has pain-relieving and efficacious properties that other, legal drugs do not, and that marijuana is less addictive and harmful to the body than legal medications.

The national group is the Marijuana Policy Project, based in Washington, D.C. In 2010, MPP contributed only $4,600 to support a South Dakota ballot initiative that sought to legalize medical marijuana, and voters rejected the initiative by a 26-point margin. A total of $78,715 was raised to support the initiative that year, including the MPP money. Opponents raised $28,379.

Four years earlier, in 2006, MPP contributed $428,091 to a similar ballot issue in South Dakota that failed by only four percentage points, 52 to 48 percent. MPP’s contribution accounted for 87 percent of the $494,793 raised in support of the initiative. Only $3,439 was raised in opposition.

Morgan Fox, communications manager for MPP, said the organization plans to commit most of its 2016 resources to supporting all-out legalization of marijuana in several other states, rather than contribute large sums to medical-marijuana legalization in South Dakota.

“I don’t think we have any plans to financially support it at this point,” Fox said of the potential South Dakota ballot issue, “but that could change.”

The organization assisted with the drafting of the South Dakota initiative and Fox said the organization will do what it can to support the effort, but the organization has to “allocate its resources carefully.”

Mentele said petition signature collectors had gathered approximately 3,000 signatures as of mid-July. They need 13,871 signatures from registered South Dakota voters by Nov. 9 to put the initiative on the ballot in the Nov. 8, 2016, general election.

Momentum lacking?

There are few outward signs that a medical-marijuana ballot issue would succeed in South Dakota.

The state is reportedly the only one in the nation that has twice rejected medical-marijuana at the polls, and in April a writer at Alternet.com cited that and other factors as reasons for including South Dakota on a list of the “nine states where marijuana will be legalized last.”

Mentele said she expects to receive a bump in support from changing attitudes about marijuana in America. There appears to be no recent public polling data gauging South Dakotans’ views on the topic, but there has been significant national movement on the issue since South Dakotans last voted on medical marijuana in 2010.

According to the Pew Research Center, Americans' support for marijuana legalization grew by 11 percentage points in polling conducted between 2010 and 2013 before leveling off. In polling earlier this year, 53 percent of Americans supported marijuana legalization.

In 2010, the year that South Dakotans last rejected legal medical marijuana, New Jersey and Arizona approved it. Since then, at least 11 more states have rolled back marijuana bans to some extent, including all-out legalization of recreational marijuana in Washington, Colorado, Alaska and Oregon. In total, 23 states and the District of Colombia have some form of legalized medical marijuana. 

Jon Schaff, a professor of political science at Northern State University in Aberdeen, said he does not foresee another 26-point drubbing if the medical marijuana issue makes the ballot in South Dakota.

“I would just say that it’ll be extremely close,” he said, “and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it passed, just because it seems that’s the way the country is moving.”

But there are significant counterweights to marijuana reform in South Dakota, including input from influential interest groups.

In 2010, the then-presidents of the South Dakota Police Chiefs’ Association and the South Dakota State Medical Association co-authored the “con” statement about the medical-marijuana initiative for the secretary of state’s pro-and-con voter information pamphlet.

More recently, representatives of both groups said they are unlikely to support the potential 2016 initiative, but will evaluate it if petitioners get it on the ballot.

Elizabeth Reiss, spokeswoman for the South Dakota State Medical Association, signaled that the organization remains skeptical of medical marijuana.

“We anticipate a similar view on this measure as last time,” Reiss said, “but it’s our practice to review any newly proposed measure anew and will do so.”

Some skeptics say it would be hard to make sure marijuana is only used medically.

Montana, where medical marijuana has been legal for more than a decade, saw the drug's use start off slowly.

Montana approved a cardholder system for medical marijuana in 2004 and watched the number of cardholders rise slowly to 2,000 by 2009.

Then, in 2010, so-called "cannabis caravans" traveled the state and provided cards to hundreds of people after brief consultations with physicians that were sometimes conducted over the Internet, according to the Missoulian newspaper. The number of cardholders soared to 31,500 by 2011, when Montanans passed a new law with restrictions that knocked the number back down. This past April, the number stood at 11,500.

That same month, there were 216 Montana physicians registered to recommend medical marijuana to patients. Nine had recommended medical pot to 301 or more patients, including one with up to 3,820 patients.

Ballot wording important

A subtler factor in the fate of the potential medical-marijuana initiative could be its ballot wording. In the previous two medical-marijuana initiatives, the ballot language was as divergent as the outcome.

In 2006, pro-marijuana forces convinced a judge to order changes in the proposed ballot language. The text that was eventually printed on ballots focused primarily on sick people, included a list of medical conditions that would qualify someone to use marijuana, and used the phrase “medical marijuana.”

In 2010, there was no litigation over the ballot language. The text printed on the ballot used the phrase “legalize marijuana,” did not include a list of medical conditions that would qualify someone to use marijuana, and did not include the phrase “medical marijuana” in either the title or explanation.

Another significant difference in the ballot explanations was their respective references to federal marijuana laws.

In 2006, the mention of federal laws came in the last sentence of the five-sentence explanation and was worded this way: “Growth, possession and use of marijuana will still be illegal under federal law but certification is a defense to criminal prosecution under state law.”

In 2010, the mention of federal law came in the second of eight sentences and was much starker: “These activities remain illegal under federal law.”

For the proposed 2016 initiative, the title and attorney general’s explanation more closely resemble the 2006 versions. The title is simply “An initiated measure to legalize marijuana for medical use.” The explanation begins, “The measure legalizes medical use of marijuana by qualifying patients …”

Yet even though the title and explanation sound less threatening than their 2010 counterparts, the scope of the 2016 measure is broader.

Both measures are predicated on a system that would allow patients with debilitating medical conditions to register themselves and a caregiver with the Department of Health. But whereas the 2010 measure limited patients to possession of no more than 1 ounce of usable marijuana, the new measure allows 3 ounces. And whereas the 2010 measure allowed only personal cultivation, the new measure allows for marijuana testing, manufacturing and cultivation facilities, as well as dispensaries, all of which much be registered with the Department of Health.

The new measure is also denser and more complex, with 95 sections spread across 21 pages. The 2010 measure had 31 sections spanning eight pages.

Schaff said that when South Dakotans look at the initiative or look at campaign material about it, they’ll be looking for assurances that medical marijuana can be controlled. He thinks some South Dakotans are being pulled toward milder views on marijuana along with the rest of the nation, but he still senses hesitancy.

“There’s a suspicion among some,” he said, “that a move toward medical marijuana is an attempt to create an exception that swallows the rule.”

That said, he thinks it’s possible that South Dakota’s electorate has changed enough since 2010 that views on marijuana could have softened, much like the passage of years softened popular opposition to same-sex marriage nationally, though not so strongly in South Dakota.

“The willingness to regulate anybody’s lives with any kind of social regulation seems to be decreasing with every passing year,” Schaff said. “Maybe these guys can catch the passing winds on this.”

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Contact Seth Tupper at seth.tupper@rapidcityjournal.com

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Enterprise Reporter

Enterprise reporter for the Rapid City Journal and author of "Calvin Coolidge in the Black Hills." Receiving encrypted news tips through Peerio with the user name seth_tupper.