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Published May 23, 2012, 12:30 AM

Is ND Ready For Medical Marijuana?

A Fargo state legislator submitted a proposed initiative to make using and growing marijuana for medicinal purposes legal.

By: Wendy Reuer, Forum Communications

A Fargo state legislator submitted a proposed initiative to make using and growing marijuana for medicinal purposes legal.

The petition was turned into Secretary of State Al Jaeger’s office on Tuesday for a title and approval of format.

Democratic Rep. Steve Zaiser and Dave Schwartz, campaign director for North Dakotans for Compassionate Care, are heading up the proposal’s sponsoring committee, which is made up of 27 members, mostly from the eastern side of the state.

Zaiser suffered a series of strokes several years ago that have left him in a state of constant pain. But he said that is not his motivation for sponsoring the initiative.

“I do have chronic pain. And if it were to be passed, and my doctor were to suggest that I could perhaps use it, I would consider doing that,” Zaiser said. “But I’m just one person. I’m really looking out for North Dakotans. It’s just simply one more tool in the tool chest to try and make people’s lives so much better.”

Zaiser said he is bringing the proposal forward now as it seems like the right time for North Dakotans to address the issue.

“All I’ve heard is good things from individuals from other states who have the opportunity to use this option,” he said.

North Dakotans for Compassionate Care is an advocate for legalizing medical marijuana use in the state, Schwartz said.

Schwartz has led movements to legalize the drug in other states such as Nevada, where he recently moved from.

“This is not going to allow more marijuana into the state,” Schwartz said. “This will be well-regulated. This isn’t about people just going out to get high. This is about patients who really do need medical marijuana.”

The National Conference of State Legislatures says Montana and 16 other states as well as Washington, D.C., allow medical marijuana use.

South Dakota has rejected the idea twice.

Schwartz said the proposal he and Zaiser submitted is similar to laws found in other states.

“It is tailored to North Dakota, and it is following a standard dispensary system,” Schwartz said Tuesday. “It’s what we think is a pretty good bill North Dakotans will be in support of after understanding all the facts.”

The proposal would allow patients diagnosed with debilitating diseases such as cancer, glaucoma or Alzheimer’s, among others, to possess up to 2½ ounces of the drug at one time.

It would ban use in any public space, including public transportation, schools, school buses and jails.

The law also sets forth strict regulations for growing medical marijuana, such as leaving it in a small, locked enclosed space.

Cities could individually address zoning of medical marijuana dispensaries.

Schwartz said he does not have a need for medical marijuana use himself, but has been touched by the issue through several friends and family living in chronic pain.

“North Dakota won’t be the first; it won’t be the last. It will give patients every opportunity to relieve their pain without the fear of arrest,” Schwartz said.

Most proponents of medical marijuana use say it’s a safe and natural way to relieve pain. Opponents of the issue argue medical marijuana is too dangerous and can lead to harder drug use, something Zaiser said is a myth.

“It’s not proven that it is a gateway – and that’s if you’re using (marijuana) recreationally,” he said. “This would be highly regulated, both how you get it and where you get it. … This is just very different. It’s so controlled.”

Representatives from Sanford Health – the largest health care provider in North Dakota – did not have a statement regarding the issue late Tuesday.

Police Lt. Joel Vettel said the Fargo department has not yet issued a public stance on medical marijuana use.

Chief Keith Ternes was out of the office Tuesday afternoon.

Jaeger said this is the first medical marijuana initiative brought to his office in the 20 years he has served.

In 2007, North Dakota was the first in the nation to issue licenses to grow industrial hemp, a plant similar to marijuana but with other uses. But the farmers who got the licenses never won approval from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. In spite of arguments that hemp was not potent enough to mimic the mind-altering effects of marijuana, the crop was never grown.

Now that the initiative has been submitted, Jaeger and the attorney general must draft a petition title, or short statement describing the measure by June 1 before the petition can be circulated.

The petition would need 13,452 signatures by Aug. 8 to make it onto the November general election ballot.

Schwartz said organizers plan to supply the petition at events and through person-to-person contact.

Information on the petition will also be available once his group’s website goes live at www.ndcompassionatecare.org.

“This was just the first step,” Zaiser said. “It has a long ways to go yet, but I feel optimistic and hopeful.”

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