In an unexpectedly strong showing, an initiative that would have allowed seriously ill patients to use marijuana garnered nearly half the votes in the socially conservative Upper Midwest state of South Dakota. But it couldn't quite get over the top, losing by a margin of 48% to 52%. South Dakota thus earns the distinction of being the only state where voters have rejected medical marijuana at the ballot box.
Backers of the effort, while disappointed, are undeterred, and have already announced they will try again in 2008 or 2010. But the state will remain a tough nut to crack.
A stark illustration of the political atmosphere in the state when it comes to marijuana was the fact that South Dakotans for Medical Marijuana, the initiative organizers, could only come up with two patients willing to go public about their marijuana use. But perhaps that should be no surprise in a state where "ingestion" of marijuana is a criminal offense for which people are routinely sentenced to jail time and a public acknowledgment of one's marijuana use could became the basis for a search warrant demanding a urine sample, which would then be used to file ingestion charges.
The measure won majority support in Minnehaha County (52%), where nearly a quarter of the state's voters reside, the college town environs of Brookings County (52%) and Clay County (62%), Gateway Computers' home Union County (51%), the Black Hills' Lawrence County (52%), and a handful of other sparsely populated West River counties. But in most of the state's East River farm country counties, voters rejected the measure, sometimes narrowly, but occasionally by large margins, and even Pennington County, the home of Rapid City, the state's second largest city, voted narrowly against it (51%).
While initiative supporters ran a relatively low-profile campaign -- the state's ballot was full of hot button issues, including an abortion ban and a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage -- opponents led by Republican South Dakota Attorney General Larry Long rallied local law enforcement in opposition to the measure. Long also called in the big guns from Washington, DC, bringing White House Office on National Drug Control Policy Deputy Director Scott Burns to the state for a series of widely publicized press conferences denouncing the measure as a "con" and a "sham."
Drug czar John Walters himself weighed in on the state initiative with a press release the Friday before the election. "This proposal is a scam being pushed on the citizens of South Dakota by people who want to legalize drugs," Walters warned. "Marijuana is a much more harmful drug than many Americans realize. There are more teens now in treatment for marijuana dependence than for all other illegal drugs combined. It is unfortunate that people who have been trying to legalize this drug for many years are exploiting the suffering of genuinely sick people to further their political ends."
The intervention by South Dakota law enforcement and federal drug warriors was key in preventing the measure from passing, said initiative spokesperson and medical marijuana patient Valerie Hannah, a Gulf War veteran who uses the drug to ease the symptoms of neurological disorders she suffers as a result of her service. "Attorney General Long bringing in the drug czar's people really hurt us," she told Drug War Chronicle. "They said things like having a caregiver just meant somebody to get high with, which is just not the case."
For the national marijuana reform movement, the South Dakota loss -- its first at the polls -- was a tough blow, but movement leaders vowed to try again. "We knew from the early polling that this would be an uphill fight, particularly on a ballot filled with hot-button issues, and with the White House and the whole state establishment, including the attorney general, against us," said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), which provided support for the South Dakota effort. "The fact that we came this close against such powerful opposition is remarkable. Working with the local activists who started this effort, we plan to try again with another medical marijuana initiative in South Dakota in November 2008 or 2010," he announced.
"Every day, science continues to prove the medical value of marijuana," Kampia continued. "In just the last two months we've seen evidence of remarkable benefit against hepatitis C and even potential against Alzheimer's disease. It's tragic that brave patients like Val Hannah, who spoke out for the initiative, will continue to face arrest and jail for simply trying to preserve their health, but in the long run, science and common sense will triumph over ignorance and fear."
"South Dakota's result, while disheartening, does nothing to change the fact that according to national polls, nearly eight out of ten Americans support the physician-approved use of medicinal cannabis," said Paul Armentano, senior policy analyst for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
Sick people like Hannah remain at risk of arrest and imprisonment for using marijuana to relieve their symptoms, but she refused to be saddened by the outcome. "I'm proud of what we did. We came very close, and this means people here are waking up. The South Dakotans who supported us made a wise choice. Next time, we will be working to get the education and knowledge out to the public more efficiently so they can make a more informed decision," she said. "We can pass this in South Dakota, perhaps through another ballot initiative in 2008. I remain hopeful," she added.