Backers hope ND pot measure will bring relief for patients; police chiefs say law isn't tough enough

FARGO -- Sheri Paulson's pain is constant. She takes nine different medications. She can only keep down bananas, protein shakes and other soft foods.

Sheri Paulson of Galesburg helped gather signatures to get the medical marijuana measure on the North Dakota ballot. She suffers from multiple sclerosis and has been told that medical marijuana could help her pain.David Samson / The Forum

FARGO - Sheri Paulson's pain is constant. She takes nine different medications. She can only keep down bananas, protein shakes and other soft foods.

"They're pretty much talking a feeding tube in my future, and I'm 49 years old," she said.

Paulson has multiple sclerosis, and she says her doctors believe medical marijuana could help her retain food, alleviate her pain and reduce her need for medications. But as a North Dakotan, she can't legally obtain it.

"I can't get this because of my ZIP code," said Paulson, who lives in Galesburg, a town about 50 miles northwest of Fargo. "I don't want to have to go to some drug dealer to get something that I need."

That's why she helped gather more than 13,000 signatures required to put a measure on the Nov. 8 ballot that, if passed, would legalize medical marijuana in the state. However, the proposed law, known as the Compassionate Care Act, is opposed by law enforcement officials in the Fargo area because, they say, it would permit medical marijuana in a smoke-able form, and they fear such pot could end up in the hands of recreational users.


Supporters of the measure disagree. "We feel this is not the slippery slope to recreational marijuana," said Ray Morgan of Fargo, chairman of the measure's sponsoring committee. "As tightly regulated as our measure is, we just don't feel that that's going to be an issue."

If approved, the measure will allow qualifying patients to possess up to 3 ounces of medical marijuana for treatment of about a dozen conditions, including MS, cancer, epilepsy, AIDS, post-traumatic stress disorder, glaucoma and intractable pain while allowing the state Department of Health to add more.

The Health Department would issue ID cards for patients and regulate state-licensed dispensaries. People living more than 40 miles from the nearest dispensary could grow up to eight marijuana plants in an enclosed, locked facility after notifying law enforcement.

In a memo this summer, the department estimated the measure would require adding 32 full-time employees and cost $8.7 million to administer in the first biennium, including $1.4 million in one-time costs. Morgan, who's dismissed the memo as fearmongering, said he doesn't know how the department reached those figures, adding that other states have enacted similar laws for less money.

West Fargo Police Chief Mike Reitan has spoken to community groups to share his hesitations about the measure, including the 30-day timeline that agencies will have to set up rules and procedures if the law passes.

Morgan acknowledged that 30 days might be a short timeline, but he said some patients can't wait for medical marijuana. "The need for this medication in a lot of cases for kids who have epilepsy is immediate," he said.

Legal in 25 states

Reitan said he's not against medical marijuana; he just wants it to be more tightly regulated than what's proposed in the measure. He said he'd accept a more restrictive law like Minnesota's, which lets patients receive marijuana only from licensed dispensaries and only in the form of capsules, liquids or oils for vaporization.


In Minnesota, "when you buy that product, you know what it is, and you know that it's been tested," Reitan said. "Under the North Dakota system, there isn't that type of mechanism in place."

Morgan said the sponsoring committee felt Minnesota's law was too restrictive, so the North Dakota measure was modeled mostly after Delaware's medical marijuana law, with parts also drawn from Arizona and Montana.

Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia have laws allowing medical marijuana, though it remains an illegal Schedule I substance under federal law.

In August, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration announced it would keep marijuana on the Schedule I list, saying it "does not meet the criteria for currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, there is a lack of accepted safety for its use under medical supervision, and it has a high potential for abuse."

Sponsors of a separate measure to fully legalize marijuana in North Dakota didn't collect the required signatures by the deadline for the November election, but said they'll shoot for the June 2018 ballot.


Minnesota established its medical marijuana program in 2014. Over 3,100 patients are registered to get the drug, and there are eight dispensaries throughout the state, including one in Moorhead, according to the state Health Department.

In June, Minnesota Medical Solutions opened Moorhead's dispensary, which only sees patients every other Saturday. On those days, the dispensary consistently has eight to 10 new patients and 10 to 20 patients seeking refills, said Dr. Kyle Kingsley, MinnMed's founder and CEO.


Kingsley said business is strong enough that there are plans to expand the dispensary's hours to every Saturday. "It's been remarkable for me to see the difference that we've made in people's lives," he said. "You see these folks in a very bad place who all of a sudden have access to something that allows them to quit opioid pain meds, and that's a pretty big life-changer for a lot of folks."

Though, not every Minnesotan who hoped to receive medical marijuana has been able to do so. Amber Solum of Moorhead said her 15-year-old son, Brett, has 45 to 100 epileptic seizures a day, and he has a prescription for medical marijuana, but her family can't afford the drug.

"It's astronomical. It's $800 a month," she said, noting that medical marijuana is not covered by insurance.

As the number of patients using medical marijuana grows, Kingsley said, the cost should drop because companies like his will be able to capitalize on economies of scale.

'A responsible process'

Before medical marijuana was legalized in Minnesota, Moorhead Police Chief David Ebinger worried it would lead to more recreational pot on the street. But he said that hasn't been the case.

Ebinger said his department has not had any issues with the local dispensary, and none of its products have shown up on the black market. "I think we've got a responsible process here that's distributing marijuana as you would any other pharmaceutical," he said.

Ebinger, however, does not support the proposed law in North Dakota because he believes it would result in illicit trafficking. He said local law enforcement agencies already encounter large amounts of pot from states where medical marijuana is legal in a form that can be smoked.

"They produce more than they can distribute for medical purposes, and it comes into our state," he said. "If we have that right across the river, it's going to give us some headaches, I think."

Kingsley countered by saying it often doesn't make economic sense to try to sell medical marijuana illegally because it's too expensive. "For example, in Minnesota our prices are at least, you know, 50 percent higher than the comparable products would be on the street," he said.

'Shocks to my face'

Paulson said she was diagnosed with MS in 2001. Shortly afterward, she started competing in marathons and triathlons. She also took up motivational speaking and began helping other MS patients.

But since April, a problem with her esophagus, believed to be related to her MS, has caused her condition to deteriorate, and she's lost 15 pounds while trying to figure out what food she can keep down.

Paulson said prescription opioids do not relieve her pain, which she describes as "electrical shooting shocks to my face." The mother and former loan officer said moving to a state where medical marijuana is legal isn't an option because her husband is a farmer.

She said she has not yet tried medical marijuana and doesn't plan to until it's legalized in North Dakota. For now, she's praying the measure passes.

"I have been hanging on by a thread," she said. "I want to try to get my life back."

Official ballot language for Measure No. 5:

This initiated measure would add a new chapter to Title 19 of the North Dakota Century Code creating an Act which provides for the medical use of marijuana for defined medical conditions, such as cancer, AIDS, hepatitis C, ALS, glaucoma, and epilepsy. To participate in the program, the Act would provide for identification cards and certificates of registration which would be issued by the Department of Health for patients, caregivers, and qualified facilities, if all requirements are met. The Act would create provisions for monitoring, inventorying, dispensing, cultivating and growing marijuana to be regulated and enforced by the Department of Health. A qualified patient could be dispensed up to three ounces of usable marijuana, and could grow marijuana if his or her home is located more than forty miles from the nearest registered facility. For violations, the Act would authorize the Department of Health to provide for corrective action, suspension, revocation, appeal, hearings, and referral for criminal prosecution. The Act would require the Department of Health to submit an annual report to the legislature regarding program statistics.

YES - means you approve the measure summarized above.

NO - means you reject the measure summarized above.

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