PIERRE, S.D. — Lawmakers and state officials rolled up their sleeves on Wednesday, May 26 — with little time to spare — to undertake a task few thought possible during the legislative session: A two-day summit on South Dakota's medical marijuana law, just over a month until the law's effective date.
In March, in the legislative session's final days, a deal to delay that voter-initiated law's implementation six months to a year fell apart.
So it was on Wednesday that officials reported to lawmakers the sheer challenge before them.
"We’re trying to get a lot done in a really short amount of time," said Jim Terwilliger, state revenue secretary.
While the summer study sessions spread into Thursday, with public comment coming in the morning, already state officials say they've tried to get sober about a program that allows for eligible and approved cardholders in the state to buy and use medical marijuana, others to sell marijuana, doctors to prescribe the treatment, and even others to grow the plants.
But South Dakota's top health official, whose agency will oversee the bulk of new regulations, poured cold water on some residents' hopes to access treatment by year's end.
"We don’t anticipate there being South Dakota-grown marijuana available until the summer of 2022," said Kim Malsam-Rysdon, secretary of the Department of Health.
While the law is technically "effective" on July 1, the enacting legislation set a timetable for a graduated program, said Malsam-Rysdon, meaning South Dakota residents won't be able to be issued cards until mid-November.
South Dakota has hired a consultant as it becomes the 36th state to legalize a medical cannabis program, but lawmakers didn't shy away from criticisms of a law they never intended to pass. State voters approved the measure by nearly 70%.
Initiated Measures 26's Melissa Mentele, who led the drive to legalize marijuana, expressed frustration that some in the summer study committee appeared to be trying to re-litigate past fights.
"We should clear some stuff up right from the get-go," Mentele said. "We're past debating ... We're at the time of implementation and rules promulgation."
South Dakota State Medical Association President Dr. Benjamin C. Aaker, who noted his organization opposed IM 26, requested that regulations specify patients return to physicians in order to check up on their marijuana regimen, something not explicit in the law.
Mentele noted cards expired after a year and any requirements beyond that interfered with the law's respect for a "bona fide patient-practitioner relationship."
One question that beguiled talks early on was to what extent the state's three largest health care providers — Avera, Sanford and Monument — would allow doctors to prescribe medical marijuana.
A spokesperson for Avera told Forum News Service the health care group is reviewing the law and awaiting "final regulatory action and clarity from the state."
Tim Rave, president of the lobby group for nonprofit health care entities, clarified later on Wednesday that "it is not an accurate statement" to suggest either Avera or Sanford had sought to block doctors from prescribing medical marijuana as treatment. Both health care providers operate facilities in North Dakota and Minnesota, two states that legalized medical marijuana.
Wednesday's hours of testimony evolved around a number of topics, ranging from the requirement that growers in the state maintain three plants at a "minimum" to whether persons claiming South Dakota residency by living in an RV park but traveling around the country were eligible for DOH-issued cards. There was even a question if regulations would outlaw marijuana in kid-friendly shapes, such as gummy bears.
Even the question of just how many South Dakotans will apply for cards appeared up in the air.
"Do we have any idea are we talking 50 South Dakotans or 50,000 South Dakotans?" asked Rep. Fred Deutsch, a Florence Republican.
Malsam-Rysdon replied "that is part of the demand analysis that our consultants are helping us with right now," noting that North Dakota enrolls over 3,000 residents in its medical marijuana program.