The number of patients registered to use medical cannabis in South Dakota has jumped in recent weeks following a mass registration event held in April.
South Dakota voters legalized the medicinal use of cannabis with the approval of a ballot measure in 2020 that passed with nearly 70% of the vote, and late last year the state Department of Health began accepting applications for medical cannabis identification cards for patients who had received a recommendation from their doctor. But after more than five months, the health department had issued fewer than 500 identification cards to eligible patients. Cannabis advocates with South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws expected to see thousands of registered patients in that time.
“I think they’re going incredibly slow,” Melissa Mentele, the primary drafter of Initiated Measure 26, the 2020 ballot measure that legalized medical pot in South Dakota, told the Argus Leader.
South Dakota’s medical cannabis law requires patients with qualifying medical conditions to receive a recommendation to use weed medicinally from a physician licensed by the state. Doctors must meet with their patients in person to issue the recommendation, unlike many states that allow telephone or video consultations.
South Dakota Marijuana Spring Fling Certifies New Patients
To help those who can benefit from medical cannabis, a Michigan-based company organized a three-day event in April to connect doctors with potential medical patients. But Molefi Branson, the founder of MyMarijuanaCards.com, had difficulty finding local doctors to certify patients after sending out hundreds of inquiries to physicians across the state. Statewide, only 96 doctors had registered with the health department’s online portal, a required step to certify patients for South Dakota’s medical cannabis program.
“Despite being available since November, only a few South Dakota residents have been able to obtain a state-issued medical cannabis card due to the limited number of doctors authorized to certify patients in the state,” Branson said in a statement from the company.
As a service to patients, Branson’s company recruited doctors based in other states including Illinois and Missouri to obtain a license to practice medicine in South Dakota so they could write recommendations during a mass screening. Dubbed the Marijuana Spring Fling, the three-day event took place in downtown Sioux Falls from April 26 through April 28.
“The demand is so high and we had zero luck with any practitioners in South Dakota wanting to put their neck out for patients,” Branson said. “So we had to get them licensed here.”
Before the medical weed card registration event launched, the health department was issuing an average of two medical cannabis identification cards per day. As of April 26, the agency had approved only 419 cards since it began processing applications on November 8. In the less than three weeks since the Marijuana Spring Fling, the health department has issued an average of 16 medical cards per day, with the total number issued jumping more than half to 652, according to the most recent data available.
Major Healthcare Systems Wary of Medical Pot
Medical cannabis advocates say that the major healthcare systems in South Dakota, Sanford Health and Avera Health, have not supported the state’s medical weed program and have failed to provide information about the number of doctors who have been certified or how many recommendations they have written.
“These major health systems are creating such a barrier,” Mentele said. “Realistically, we should have 10 times that in the state of South Dakota.”
Both health care systems have publicly taken a neutral stance on medical cannabis, saying that they do not support or oppose its use. Issuing medical cannabis recommendations is at the discretion of doctors.
“It is up to each individual Sanford provider to determine the use of medical marijuana in regards to each patient’s individual care plan and what they feel is medically best for their patients,” said Dr. Joshua Crabtree, clinic vice president for Sanford Health’s Sioux Falls region.
The details of South Dakota’s medical cannabis program have also made some physicians wary to provide recommendations to use cannabis medicinally to their patients. Under the law, doctors who certify patients must attest that medical pot will have a therapeutic or palliative effect on the patient.
In March, the state legislature passed and Gov. Kristi Noem signed a bill to amend the medical cannabis program. Under the change in law, doctors will only have to certify that the patient has one of the serious medical conditions that qualify a patient to use weed medicinally. Medical cannabis advocates and health care officials expect more patients to be approved for the program after the change in law goes into effect on July 1.
“We continue to evaluate the medical cannabis program in South Dakota and changes to the program, including some of the changes made during this last South Dakota Legislative Session,” Crabtree said.