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Lawmaker: South Dakota can implement medical marijuana program by November

Despite failed attempts by South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem to delay implementation of a medical marijuana program, a legislative leader on marijuana issues believes the state can be ready to roll out its first prescriptions for legal pot by Nov. 18, 2021, as scheduled.

Noem said the state needed more time to enact a well-designed regulatory framework, but her bill to put off the July 1, 2021, implementation date by a year failed in the Legislature.

The medical marijuana program, created by Initiated Measure 26, was approved by nearly 70% of voters in November 2020. IM 26 requires creation of a regulatory framework by the Department of Health within 120 days of its taking effect, or by Oct. 29, 2021, and issuance of the first medical marijuana prescription cards to patients within 140 days, or by Nov. 18, 2021.

Rep. Mike Derby, head of the unofficial “Cannabis Caucus” in the Legislature, said the state should have sufficient time to develop and implement a program before the statutory deadlines.

“I believe that timeline is doable, and I feel good about it,” said Derby, R-Rapid City. “I think we can do it in a responsible way and meet the wishes of the voters.”

Experts say most states have taken a year to 18 months to fully implement a new medical marijuana program.

With passage of IM 26 taking place on Nov. 3, 2020, South Dakota will have had slightly more than a year to prepare for the issuance of the first prescriptions for medical marijuana. North Dakota recently took nearly two years to implement its medical marijuana program, while Minnesota took about 13 months to start its program.

Derby said the Legislature allocated roughly $4 million to several state agencies to prepare for legalization of marijuana and has hired Cannabis Public Policy Consulting of Sudbury, Mass., to aid in preparation.

“We have had four months in the legislative session to look at this, and South Dakota has already hired one of the best consultants in the country,” Derby said. “We in the Legislature always felt we could roll it out sooner.”

Noem has created a medical marijuana work group to prepare for legalization, though little is known about the group, its membership or its agenda.

Daniel Bucheli, spokesman for the state Department of Health, said the department is working behind the scenes to prepare for a rollout of medicinal pot. 

“We are working through the many components needed to administer a responsible medical marijuana program in South Dakota,” Bucheli wrote to News Watch on March 22.

Noem’s office sent out a proposed series of amendments to IM 26 on March 22 that included a limit of three homegrown marijuana plants for patients, a ban on smokable marijuana for patients under 21 and a decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, among other things. The governor’s proposed compromise amendment does not include a delay of the program start date.

Mike Derby
“I believe that timeline is doable, and I feel good about it ... I think we can do it in a responsible way and meet the wishes of the voters.” -- Rep. Mike Derby, R-Rapid City

House Speaker Spencer Gosch, R-Mobridge, said he had seen the governor’s proposed amendments to IM 26 and noted that a special session of the Legislature would likely be needed to enact them.

The process to find common ground on medical marijuana legislation has been difficult so far, he said.

“The whole thing is, the communications have been very, very rough between the governor’s office and the Legislature when it comes to what exactly the ask is here,” Gosch said on March 23. “There has not been an official ask and therefore it has not been on my radar.”

South Dakota’s legislation allows patients with certain medical conditions to get a card that allows them to obtain, possess and use medicinal marijuana. 

South Dakota Initiated Measure 26 defines qualifying conditions as: a chronic or debilitating disease or medical condition or its treatment that produces one or more of the following: cachexia or wasting syndrome; severe, debilitating pain; severe nausea; seizures; or severe and persistent muscle spasms, including those characteristic of multiple sclerosis; or any other medical condition or its treatment added by the department.

Meanwhile, one representative of the state health-care industry said the medical community stands ready to respond to whatever rules are put in place regarding legalization of medical marijuana.

Tim Rave, president of the South Dakota Association of Healthcare Organizations, noted that two of the industry group’s largest members, Sanford and Avera health systems, already operate in neighboring states where medical marijuana is legal.

“Our positions as both individual members and as an association [have] always been that we will follow whatever the law is; we’ll follow the curbs and gutters as they are set up,” Rave said.

One goal for South Dakota medical providers will be to ensure they are following state laws while not violating federal laws, which do not recognize marijuana as a legal drug. Rave also said the medical community will provide input on a regulatory framework for medical marijuana if and when asked, even if tweaks to the program are needed well after implementation.

“We will plan an active role in putting our members’ voices on the table in the rule-making process,” he said. “Obviously we didn’t get any potential changes made this legislative session, but that doesn’t mean we can’t come back next legislative session and advocate for anything we see that are challenges, because to be honest, some of this we may not know until it is up and running and we’ll have to work through it as it comes up.”