FARGO, N.D. — North Dakota voters will decide next month whether to legalize marijuana for medical use by siding either with opponents who say sciences is on their side or with supporters like a desperate grandmother who illegally purchased the drug to help her cancer-stricken daughter.
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Four states have ballot measures this year asking to join the list of 25 states that have comprehensive medical marijuana programs and 17 states that permit limited access to the drug. Minnesota recently approved a plan, while several states are considering legalizing the drug altogether.
Linda Kersten is a staunch supporter of North Dakota’s medical marijuana ballot initiative, Measure 5. The Newburg resident opted for marijuana to counter the side-effects of her daughter’s surgeries and chemotherapy treatment for stage 4 colon cancer. In a matter of minutes, Kersten said, her daughter went from struggling to sit up in a chair to talking and walking around the block.
“That was the last thing on my mind when our journey started, but it was pretty much a life saver,” said Kersten, a 70-year-old retired teacher. “Like any measure, your first inclination is to vote no. If I wouldn’t have seen it with my own eyes, I would have been in the same boat probably.”
The law would allow qualifying patients to possess up to 3 ounces of medical marijuana for treatment of about a dozen medical conditions, such as cancer, AIDS, hepatitis C, ALS, glaucoma and epilepsy. The state Health Department would issue ID cards for patients and regulate state-licensed dispensaries.
The sponsoring committee chairman, Rilie Ray Morgan, is a financial adviser from Fargo who suffers from chronic pain. He said he became interested in the subject after watching a report by CNN medical reporter Dr. Sanjay Gupta extolling the benefits of medical marijuana.
“He said in his narrative that before he did that show, he was 100 percent opposed to medical cannabis,” Morgan said. “After he did the show and did the research, he said, ‘I have done a 180.’ It got me thinking that this is the time to get this going in North Dakota.”
Opponents, mostly in the medical community, say there is no evidence to support safe usage of marijuana.
Dr. Joan Connell, a Bismarck pediatrician and onetime pharmacist, said it’s impossible to study the “efficacy or side-effects or interactions” of marijuana because you can’t get a specific dosage from a plant.
“It really becomes tough to explain that basic fact, when you have an adult who is suffering from horrible pain or when you have a child who is rolled up in front of the Legislature by their parent who is desperate for something to make something better for this child. I mean, who doesn’t want to help that?” Connell said.
“With my experience, I understand that the way to truly help the patient is not to give that family a bag of pot and say, ‘Good luck. You figure out the dosage, and I hope it’s consistent so you don’t overdose your kid,'” he said.
Morgan said there have been minor side-effects reported by some medical marijuana patients, but nobody has died.
“Can that be said of some of the prescription drugs like opioids that doctors prescribe today?” he asked. “No, you can’t say that.”
Courtney Koebele, executive director of the North Dakota Medical Association, which has come out against the measure, said her group’s No. 1 complaint is that marijuana has not been tested by the Federal Drug Administration to determine appropriate dosages.
She counters Kersten’s anecdote with one of her own. She said one of her family members is being treated for breast cancer in Seattle, where the use of both recreational and medical marijuana is legal, and the doctor didn’t recommend it.
The North Dakota House rejected a medical marijuana bill last session after Morgan asked Fargo Democrat Pam Anderson to sponsor the legislation. Republican Al Carlson, the House majority leader, believes there are problems with enforcement and administration. But he said the deal-breaker was the lack of evidence to guarantee quality of the drug.
“This is really bad for the state of North Dakota and its residents,” Carlson said.
Another supporter is Erica Wondrasek, a North Dakota native who now lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Her 62-year-old mother suffers from severe Crohn’s disease and other health issues. In the last year, she moved from her lifelong home in Bottineau, where she taught music for 35 years, to Rochester, Minnesota, both for testing at the Mayo Clinic and the option of using medical marijuana. She has been taking the oil form of the drug and is “doing better than she has in years,” her daughter said.
However, she misses home and told her daughter she “doesn’t want to be in the dark” anymore.
“In her heart she really believes that medical marijuana is going to pass in North Dakota,” Wondrasek said, fighting back tears. “It is going to break her heart if it doesn’t. Her whole livelihood is in North Dakota.”