FARGO — Protesters took to the streets Friday afternoon, June 14, and were receiving plenty of honks by passing cars as they voiced their opinion that Sanford Health isn't helping in the situation to allow more patients to receive medical marijuana.
The group was led by eight-year Navy veteran Chris Howell of Fargo, who said the regional medical giant doesn't seem to be cooperating in offering medical marijuana as an option to patients who request it.
Howell, who is president of the Veterans for Safe Access to Cannabis in North Dakota, said it appears to be more that the administrators, rather than the doctors, are causing the problem for patients seeking certification.
He said a Sanford administrator who helped get a law change passed in the past legislative session where doctors no longer have to prescribe medical marijuana directly to patients, but rather only have to "certify" that the patient has one of the conditions that qualifies them for a medical marijuana card from the state so they can buy at a dispensary.
There are now two dispensaries open in North Dakota in Fargo and Grand Forks, with one in Williston expected to open in June and Bismarck in July. As of this week, there are 614 active patient cards, according to the medical marijuana division of the North Dakota Department of Health.
Howell was accompanied by about 10 other protesters from all age groups who held up signs in front of Sanford's Southpointe Clinic in south Fargo along 32nd Avenue and 25th Street for a few hours. A similar protest was held in Bismarck on Friday.
The group calls itself the ND Cannabis Caucus and includes the Committee for Compassionate Care and Real ND News, in addition to the veteran's group which Howell said has about 40 members statewide.
Howell said Sanford has had almost three years since voters approved medical marijuana by a 63 to 37 percent margin to get a "plan in place. And they still don't."
Sanford officials wouldn't do a personal interview when contacted. However, Dr. Chris Meeker, a vice president and medical officer who specializes in emergency medicine at Sanford Medical Center in Bismarck, said in a statement that the medical organization "does not endorse or oppose the use of medical marijuana."
"The decision to certify a patient is up to each Sanford doctor and what they feel is medically best for their patients. We base our discussions with patients on medical research to ensure the best treatment for our patients," Meeker said in the statement.
Although Howell said it appears Sanford isn't open to alternative treatments for such things as severe pain and relief from chemotherapy, Meeker said they "assess and help initiate alternative pain medications and treatment for its patients."
He also said it was important to "remember" that the North Dakota Department of Health medical marijuana division said there has to be a bona fide patient-provider relationship when medical professionals are asked to certify a patient.
That was part of the law that the Legislature kept in when it almost unanimously made numerous changes to the program this past winter.
Howell, who said he knows of at least two veterans who have tried to get certified but rejected by Sanford, said the Veterans Administration now has allowed a new program where veterans who get primary care at a state VA hospital can apply for a medical marijuana card by submitting their medical records to the state — a much more streamlined process.
Howell is convinced that medical marijuana "does work." He said he knows of other veterans with pain, spinal issues and post-traumatic stress disorder who have been helped.