Election 2016: Can North Dakota Get Medical Marijuana Over the Finish Line?

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A last-minute infusion of campaign cash from the Drug Policy Alliance is hoping to get a volunteer-led medical marijuana initiative in North Dakota over the finish line .

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of DPA, said the fact that the measure made the ballot in North Dakota came as a surprise to national organizations. He said his organization sent infusions of cash last week to campaigns in Montana and Arkansas as well, which are also considering medical marijuana initiatives.

“They did the work and got the thing on the ballot, and I wanted to help them out a bit,” Nadelmann said.

North Dakota is one of the nation’s least populated states, with less than 800,000 residents. It is one of nine states considering marijuana-related measures at the polls on Tuesday. Voters in Arkansas, Montana and Florida are also considering measures to join the 25 states that already have medical marijuana programs. Five other states—Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada—have recreational marijuana on the ballot.

Measure 5, the North Dakota Compassionate Care Act, marks the first time voters in that state will weigh in on the issue.

“There are North Dakotans in pain with serious ailments and they think this can help,” said Ray Morgan, who is co-chairman of the campaign backing the measure.

The act would allow patients suffering from cancer, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and other debilitating conditions to buy up to three ounces of marijuana from a non-profit compassion center regulated by the state. For patients who live more than 40 miles from a center, the patient or designated caregiver could grow up to eight plants in an enclosed and locked facility.

Morgan, a 66-year-old financial adviser in Fargo, and his wife Anita, 60, who works in advertising, became inspired to fight for medical marijuana after watching Sanjay Gupta’s special “Weed” on CNN in 2014. Ray has had serious back problems and has undergone three surgeries. While he says he hasn’t tried medical marijuana, he thinks it should be an option for himself and other people in the state with debilitating conditions.

“My heart just goes out to those people for what they have to do and what they put up with the man-made drugs they put in their system because there is no alternative and the side effects are overwhelming,” Morgan said.

A medical marijuana bill in the North Dakota legislature failed in 2015. And a previous attempt to get a measure on the ballot fell short after signatures were invalidated as fraudulent.

There has been no recent polling in the state on Measure 5, and its prospects are unclear. A 2014 poll commissioned by Forum Communications Co. and conducted by the University of North Dakota College of Business and Public Administration found 47 percent in support of medical marijuana with 41 percent opposed and 9 percent neutral, according to the Bismarck Tribune.

That same poll found strong opposition to legalizing marijuana for recreational use, with 68 percent opposed compared to 24 percent in favor.

The North Dakota Medical Association has come out in opposition to Measure 5, questioning the efficacy of medical marijuana and calling the act poorly written and a potential burden on the state health department.

“Based upon research, as much as the physicians would love to find an easy solution for the opioid epidemic, medical marijuana is not that solution,” the organization said in a written statement. “The physicians of North Dakota want the best therapies, practices, and methods that have been tested and proven for their patients. If marijuana can be researched and tested more extensively, we believe more options will be made apparent. Until that time, we implore all voters to look at the big picture.”

Linda Kersten, a 71-year-old grandmother and retired teacher from Newberg, said she became a believer in medical marijuana when she saw how it helped her 48-year-old daughter, who has colon cancer, during chemotherapy.

Kersten and her daughter heard about how medical marijuana helped patients and so they acquired it illegally.

“She was laying on the couch and could hardly get up,” Kersten recalled in a recent phone interview with High Times. “Within a few minutes she was sitting up and said if it wasn’t dark out she’d go for a walk.”

Kersten has written op-eds about her daughter’s experience in support of Measure 5.

“I have opened myself up to this to say we did it the way we did because it did work,” she said.

Anita Morgan said the DPA’s $15,000 donation would allow them to air commercials on television this week and do other promotion.

She said the Vote Yes on Measure Five campaign, which she co-chairs with her husband, has 110 volunteers across the state and has appreciated grassroots support, such as a recent $5 donation from a North Dakotan on a fixed income.

The campaign also received in-kind support from the Marijuana Policy Project that enabled them to make a video that previously aired on Facebook and will now air on television.


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