The number of South Dakotans with state-issued medical marijuana ID cards has spiked in recent weeks.
But crafters of a 45-week-old law that forced the Department of Health to create the medicinal cannabis program say the number of cards issued to this point lags behind what they’d anticipated. And there’d be even fewer than the 652 that have been sent out by DOH if not for mass patient screenings organized by an out-of-state medical cannabis certification company.
“I think they’re going incredibly slow,” said Melissa Mentele, the primary drafter of Initiated Measure 26, the ballot measure passed by voters in 2020 that legalized medical marijuana in South Dakota and created a framework for the state’s program.
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According to data provided by DOH, the agency issued an average of two medical marijuana ID cards per day between Nov. 8, 2021, when the state opened up the application process, and April 26 of this year. At that time, 419 cards had been issued by the state.
Then MyMarijuanaCards.com, a Michigan-based business that connects individuals seeking state certification to use cannabis for medicinal purposes with physicians eligible to make that recommendation, began operating in South Dakota. And since then, it has served more than 300 customers, the vast majority of which have been certified for medical marijuana use by the company’s partnering physicians, MyMarijuanaCards.com founder Molefi Branson told the Argus Leader this week.
Since the company’s arrival to South Dakota, the daily rate at which DOH is issuing medical marijuana ID cards has jumped to more than 16 with a total number of cards issued now at 652, according to the latest available data.
Even so, Mentele said that South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, the political organization behind the state’s ongoing cannabis reform efforts, had estimated that thousands of state residents would qualify as medical marijuana patients.
But the longtime cannabis-freedom advocate isn’t blaming the state for holding the numbers down. Rather, it’s what she characterized as resistance among the major healthcare systems to embrace the state program and cannabis’ role in medicine that is keeping patients who might otherwise qualify from getting DOH pot cards.
“These major health systems are creating such a barrier,” she said. “Realistically, we should have 10 times that in the state of South Dakota.”
Statewide, just 96 physicians have registered in the health department’s online portal, a necessary step to certify patients as qualifying for the state’s program.
Both Sanford Health and Avera Health have declined to provide details about the number of doctors in their staffs who have certified patients for medical marijuana, nor the number of certifications made.
However, each system is publicly taking a neutral position, issuing statements saying that they do not support or oppose the use of medicinal marijuana, but that the determination to certify patients for the state program is at the will of individual physicians.
“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.
A lack of familiarity with cannabis within the health care industry as well as the way the voter-passed law was written are also causing hesitation among physicians opting not to certify patients. During the 2022 Legislative Session, lawmakers heard repeatedly from health care lobbyists that provisions within the statute state that a doctor who certifies a patient is attesting that cannabis will have a palliative or therapeutic effect.
That’s why the Legislature and Gov. Kristi Noem in March approved a change to the medical marijuana law that will require medical professionals only to diagnose a patient with a medical condition on the list of DOH’s qualifying conditions for the medical program.
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That statute change, which goes into effect on July 1, is expected to result in more physicians participating in the program, according to both medical cannabis advocates and the healthcare industry.
“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.
But until then, some South Dakotans will continue to rely on the out-of-state medical cannabis certification company that’s already accounts for as much more than a third of the total cards issued to date by DOH.