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McFeely: Medical marijuana a needed debate in North Dakota

FARGO -- Let's have a conversation about medical marijuana, shall we? What do you say, North Dakota? The old men in the Legislature didn't want to, so now the citizens can act as the adults in the room. This is awesome.

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Tracy Vearrier, 37, of Bismarck, N.D., speaks to reporters Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015, at the state Capitol in Bismarck about his support for a bill that would legalize medicinal marijuana with hopes that it will benefit his 12-year-old daughter, Paige, who is unable to walk or talk and suffers frequent seizures. Forum News Service file photo

FARGO -- Let’s have a conversation about medical marijuana, shall we? What do you say, North Dakota? The old men in the Legislature didn’t want to, so now the citizens can act as the adults in the room. This is awesome.

That’s the best thing about the news that supporters of legalized medical marijuana have gathered more than enough petition signatures to get their measure on the ballot in November, assuming the signatures are OK’d by the secretary of state. It’s not even so much about whether the measure passes or not. It’s that the state will be forced to debate and get educated about the pros and cons of marijuana used for medicinal purposes.

Getting dragged kicking and screaming into the 2010s is better than not progressing there at all, one supposes.

If legislators are upset about this, they have nobody to blame but themselves. The Republican super-majority refused to even consider a medical marijuana bill in the 2015 session. Maybe Harold Hamm told them it wasn’t a good idea. Or maybe they were too busy setting aside hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend unconstitutional anti-abortion laws. Whatever the case, the citizens used their power to force the discussion and a vote.

It comes at an interesting time. While the state is grappling with a frightening level of opioid addiction and resultant deaths, residents will be able to decide whether allowing an alternative to powerful painkillers is a good idea. It’s not always an apples-to-apples comparison, but wouldn’t having the ability to choose a less-dangerous option than opioids be a good idea to treat, say, debilitating back pain?

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The idea behind medical marijuana is to provide relief to those suffering chronic pain from cancer, HIV, AIDS, Hepatitis C, Lou Gehrig’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy and other ailments. It is another tool in the toolbox. It is also a matter of compassion and humanity, to provide those suffering with whatever they need to be more comfortable.

It will likely be a difficult measure to pass. There is still a stigma surrounding marijuana, even the medicinal variety, and North Dakota is still a deeply conservative state. The cliche of “Reefer Madness” still poisons the minds of many, even if some polls show 8 in 10 Americans favor medical marijuana and 25 states already have it.

“That’s why we’ll need to educate the voters of North Dakota,” Rilie Ray Morgan of Fargo, one of the movement’s leaders, said on my 970 WDAY radio show this week. “We know we need to educate them on what this is all about.”

The measure is called the North Dakota Compassionate Care Act and is 34 pages worth of minute details about what is allowed, what is not allowed and who can obtain or grow medical marijuana. Morgan believes it’s airtight, which it needed to be in order pass in the fall.

“We’ve dotted the I’s and crossed all the T’s, I feel, to keep this measure safe and make sure people don’t skirt the rules and that sort of thing,” he said.

There’s no doubt the details will be vetted prior to November. That will hopefully make for healthy conversation and debate. But Morgan and his fellow backers could learn a lesson from neighboring Minnesota, which legalized a very restrictive form of medical marijuana in 2014.

There was strong opposition to legalized pot in that state, particularly from law enforcement. Many believed medical marijuana was the proverbial “slippery slope” that would lead to abuses and illegal dealing. Some in law enforcement used the argument of marijuana being a so-called gateway drug that led to hard-drug use.

What helped turn Minnesota lawmakers was the sheer restrictiveness of what’s allowed, but also the story of real people who would be helped by medical pot. Not stoners or potheads, but peoples’ suffering from a disease that could be lessened by marijuana.

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Those people included little Greta Botker of Clinton, Minn., about two hours south of Moorhead. Seven years old in 2014, Greta suffered about 15 epileptic seizures a day since she was five months old. Her parents, Mark and Maria, tried a host of medicines to stop or limit the seizures. Greta even had brain surgery. Nothing worked.

The Botkers heard of a strain of cannabis oil available in Colorado, where medical marijuana was legal, that could help Maria. When they tried it, Maria’s seizures were greatly reduced. So the Botkers split their time between farming in western Minnesota and living in Colorado so Greta could get some relief.

Maria Botker became an outspoken proponent of medical marijuana in 2014, lobbying the Legislature and making the media rounds.

The Botkers, and others like them, became the faces of the medical marijuana movement in Minnesota. They helped tell the human story of its need. They helped push the narrative away from “Reefer Madness” and munchie jokes.

North Dakota backers of medical marijuana would be wise to do some similar storytelling. Their measure is less restrictive than Minnesota’s law and some will be allowed to grow marijuana. The debate will be good no matter what. It will be better with a human face attached to it.

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