Financial adviser Rilie Ray Morgan holds a sign promoting a ballot measure that would legalize the use of medical marijuana while sitting in his home in south Fargo, N.D., on Oct. 21, 2016. (Dave Kolpack, Associated Press file)

Credit this man for helping medical marijuana make surprising headway in America’s Heartland

Meet the 66-year-old North Dakota native who spearheaded the medical marijuana ballot measure. It had overwhelmingly approval by voters in 2016 after lawmakers shot down 2015 legislation

A small yet scrappy force led the charge behind North Dakota’s new medical marijuana law.

Among the many surprises of Election Night 2016, one of the biggest happened in America’s Heartland — even to the folks steering the effort.

“In this conservative state … it was a head-scratcher to see the numbers come in, I tell you,” said Rilie Ray Morgan, chairman of North Dakotans for Compassionate Care.

Morgan had just a handful of resources: About 110 volunteers fanned out to various events and political rallies to collect signatures, the campaign brought in contributions totaling fewer than $18,000, and proponents received little assistance from national advocacy groups.

You can say the efforts were nonetheless effective: The measure passed overwhelmingly, garnering nearly 64 percent support.

Morgan, a 66-year-old financial adviser who spearheaded the effort, chatted with The Cannabist about the unheralded campaign’s genesis and what may lie ahead in a state with a budget gashed by the oil bust.

A quest for pain relief sparks a lobbying moment

For years, Morgan has tried to manage the suffering he has endured following a back surgery in December 2000 that “did not go well” by taking drugs such as gabepentin to manage the nerve pain.

Then, a couple of years back, he considered another alternative.

“My wife was watching Dr. Sanjay Gupta (neurosurgeon and CNN’s chief medical correspondent) report about the medical refugees in Colorado,” Morgan said. “She said, ‘You gotta watch this.'”

Gupta’s documentary “Weed,” which included a piece on people coming to Colorado to treat their sick children with medical marijuana, and Gupta’s 180-degree turn on the topic spurred Morgan to reassess his situation.

“I just thought that maybe it’s time we explore the options here in North Dakota,” Morgan said.

In the fall of 2014, Morgan e-mailed state Rep. Pamela Anderson, D-Fargo, and inquired about her potentially sponsoring a medical marijuana bill. Anderson, some fellow House Democrats and Republicans introduced HB1430 to allow for the use of medical marijuana.

The bill failed in a 67-26 House vote in February 2015, according to the Grand Forks Herald. A month later, a bipartisan proposal for a medical marijuana study was struck down by the House Human Services Committee with a 7-6 do-not-pass recommendation, the Bismark Tribune reported:

Prime bill sponsor Rep. Gail Mooney, D-Cummings, said the resolution stems from the failure of HB1430.

“While HB1430 failed to meet the rigors and scrutiny of this legislative assembly, the debate continues in the eyes of the public,” said Mooney, adding that the medical marijuana issue is complex and studying the implications of legalizing it is important to ensure it is safely and tightly regulated.

“Without a deliberate and proactive approach such as this, we leave it to chance and timing for an initiated measure of which we will have no control of content or outcome,” said Mooney, who provided the committee with a report on medical marijuana compiled by students at Minot State University.

Morgan said the initiated measure comments lit the light bulb in his head.

Morgan and his wife contacted the North Dakota residents who spoke up in favor of the medical marijuana proposals, called up friends suffering from ailments such as Crohn’s disease, and built a grassroots network from there.

The all-volunteer effort totaled 110 people who gathered signatures at the various spring and summer festivals and political rallies for Democratic nominee Sen. Bernie Sanders, former President Bill Clinton, and Republican nominee Donald Trump.

“We only needed 13,452 signatures, we got about 17,400 that were certified by the Secretary of State. We got it on the ballot,” Morgan said. “Basically it was just kind of a website- and Facebook-driven PR on our part. We got a little bit of money from one of the (national) organizations at the end for a little bit of TV advertising, but not enough to make that much of a difference.”

In total, North Dakotans for Compassionate Care raised $17,429.59, he said.

“It’s incredible,” he said. “My wife and I took money out of our pockets to do something. It was pretty low-key.”

Finding the right fit

Morgan and his committee modeled the North Dakota Compassionate Care Act after medical marijuana laws in Delaware, Montana, Minnesota and Arizona.

However, Morgan felt states such as Minnesota were too restrictive in their qualifications for medical cannabis approval.

“We did not want that to happen here, so we really opened it up to a lot of different ailments,” he said. “I went through a lot of different states, put down just about everything I could. I think that might be a little bit more unique.”

But overall, he said, the committee did not reinvent the wheel and did not stray too far from the norm in terms of existing medical marijuana laws. North Dakota’s measure allows registered patients who have a medical marijuana ID card to purchase up to 3 ounces of cannabis from a licensed compassion center.

The following conditions are listed in the measure:

“Debilitating medical condition” means one or more of the following:
a. Cancer and its treatments;
b. Positive status for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV);
c. Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS);
d. Decompensated cirrhosis (Hepatitis C);
e. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease);
f. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD);
g. Agitation of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, or the treatment of these conditions;
h. Crohn’s disease or Fibromyalgia;
i. Spinal stenosis or chronic back pain including neuropathy or damage to the nervous tissue of the spinal cord with objective neurological indication of intractable spasticity;
j. Glaucoma;
k. Epilepsy;
I. A chronic or debilitating disease medical condition or its treatment that produces one or more of the following: cachexia or wasting syndrome; severe debilitating pain that has not responded to previously prescribed medication or surgical measures for more than three months or for which other treatment options produced serious side effects; intractable nausea; seizures; or severe and persistent muscle spasms, including but not limited to those characteristic of multiple sclerosis;
m. Any other medical condition or its treatment added by the North Dakota Department of Health.

Backlash over North Dakota medical marijuana plan

The major opposition came from the North Dakota Medical Association, North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and some newspapers’ editorial boards, Morgan said.

North Dakota’s Health Department warned that the costs would be too high to implement the program, that it would take $8.7 million in the first two years of the program, $7.3 million every two years thereafter, and would require the hiring of 32 full-time employees.

Morgan was incredulous.

“It’s like, are you kidding me?” he said. “The numbers from what we saw in other states were so out of line, and we screamed foul.”

When will things be up and running?

The state government has 30 days from Nov. 8 to develop the program, but it’ll take some time to get the compassion centers licensed and the plants growing, he said.

At the very earliest, it’s a year away, Morgan added.

Morgan estimates that between 8,000 and 15,000 residents will qualify under the program, noting that he would be one who will have a conversation with his physician about medical marijuana.

As for his future involvement in the industry, Morgan said he’s one out from retirement and may consider pursuing an investment in the North Dakota medical marijuana market.

MMJ’s future in North Dakota and elsewhere

The energy sector’s woes dealt a blow to North Dakota’s economic health. Earlier this year, Gov. Jack Dalrymple called for state agency budgets for 2017-2019 to be cut by 10 percent, the Bismark Tribune reported.

“North Dakota is struggling right now financially,” Morgan said, noting falling revenue from agriculture and oil.

Funding for the medical marijuana program will be an issue, he said.

“I think with the huge support the measure got, I don’t think they’re doing to try to gut this in any fashion,” he said. “But I do think there might be some issues with getting money for this. No question about that.”