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Supporters: Med Marijuana Bill Needed

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South Dakota -- Valerie Hannah is tired of living with the fear of being put behind bars. Suffering from a degenerative disease similar to multiple sclerosis, she has used marijuana for the past four years to ease the pain.
South Dakotans will decide this November whether the 42-year-old can legally possess the marijuana she says has improved her quality of life after trying a laundry list of prescribed medications that either weren't effective or left her feeling "zombied out."

Initiated Measure 4 would allow people, including minors with parental consent, who have debilitating illnesses such as AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis and Crohn's disease to be certified to grow up to six marijuana plants or possess up to one ounce of the drug, according to the attorney general's explanation on the general ballot.

Attaining certification will require that patients submit their medical records or a doctor's recommendation to the Department of Health.

If passed, South Dakota would join 11 other states that have passed medical marijuana measures.

"My hope is, if this is passed, I can grow (marijuana) on my own and be assured of the quality of my medicine," Hannah said Friday during a visit with the Press & Dakotan on behalf of South Dakotans for Medical Marijuana (SDMM). "Right now, if I were to do that, they could come in any time and take my house away or take my son away. That's too much to lose. There's no reason we should have to be criminals to seek an herbal remedy after we've exhausted all the other legal drugs."

Hannah, a resident of Deerfield, was exposed to sarin gas while serving as a combat medic in the Gulf War.

The practice during that war was to clear bunkers and then blow them up, she said.

"We didn't know there were sub-levels that were holding sarin gas," Hannah said. "As a result of that, I have permanent neurological damage that gets worse as I go on. I've gone from being a very active person ... to someone for whom stairs are a challenge."

In 1999, she had to be medically discharged from her job as a nurse with the Veterans' Administration hospital in Hot Springs. Shortly after, Hannah said, she decided to try marijuana as a way to treat her pain.

"The pain that is caused when your nerves degenerate is indescribable," she said. "It's like a deep burning. To get up and dance, for example -- it's just a dream now. The things you get to take for granted, I'm losing every day. If this medicine can help me keep it one extra day, why should I be a criminal because I'm using it?"

Hannah knows what it's like to be considered a criminal.

In 2004 while traveling between Veterans' Affairs hospitals for treatment, she was arrested after law enforcement pulled her over for speeding and discovered a three-day supply of marijuana.

Ultimately, after spending thousands of dollars on legal representation, Hannah said she only paid a fine for a speeding ticket.

She said that experience, coupled with the improved quality of life she's seen the drug provide for other sufferers of chronic illness, has driven her to speak out publicly for the measure.

"It would be much easier to just go on the black market, but I don't want to go there," Hannah said. "I'm a real citizen. I'm not some derelict or whatever people want to associate with this issue. I'm scared every day anyway. This way, by telling my story, maybe the real facts will be out there."

Thomas Griffith, the president of TDG Communications, Inc., in Deadwood and who is doing public relations for SDMM, said the measure is about compassion for people who have exhausted other alternatives to deal with pain.

"There are people suffering every day," he said. "Who are we to tell a patient and a doctor how to treat their illness?"

Griffith points out that more than 170 healthcare professionals in South Dakota have signed a petition supporting the measure.

Critics of the measure, such as Hughes County Sheriff Mike Leidholt, argue that there are FDA-approved drugs that can treat marijuana-users' pain. Because marijuana is unregulated, it can be dangerous to users, Leidholt states in his written opposition to the measure. He goes on to argue that any attempts to legitimize the drug will cause more use and abuse of the drug.

The biggest obstacle SDMM faces is ignorance, Griffith said.

"We have people who would misconstrue this as a decriminalization issue," he said. "That's not what this is about. It's not about recreational drug use. That's a whole other issue that this does not seek to address."

All of the laws against marijuana will remain in place if the measure passes, Griffith said. Those who violate the provisions of the measure would be subject to penalties under current statute.

Additionally, in the attorney general's explanation, it is noted that people authorized to use medical marijuana cannot drive while under the influence of marijuana. Also, they would not be allowed to smoke marijuana where tobacco smoking is prohibited.

Marijuana possession and use would continue to be illegal under federal law, but since most prosecutions related to the drug are done by state and local authorities, it would virtually eliminate the risk to medical pot users, Griffith added.

"I think South Dakota will embrace this once they understand the essence of the message, and that is one of compassion for people like Valerie," he said.

Source: Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan (SD)
Author: Nathan Johnson
Published: Saturday, September 30, 2006
Copyright: 2006 Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan
 

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