NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Save The Medical Refugees!

Ray and Anita Morgan of Fargo spent the first six months of 2016 fighting life-threatening medical conditions with clipboards and ballpoint pens.

By July, they and some 100 other volunteers had won their first battle, achieving a spot on the North Dakota Compassionate Care Act on next month’s statewide ballot with petitions bearing more than 17,000 signatures. The secretary of state certified the initiated Measure 5 and placed it on next month’s election ballot.

But now, they face an even higher mountain — persuading a majority of voters to say “yes” to legalize the closely regulated use of medical marijuana by North Dakota patients and physicians.

Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia have already opened the doors to medical marijuana, including Minnesota, where the Legislature passed the measure in 2014. Two other states — Arkansas and Florida — vote on similar measures next month, while Montana voters (who legalized medical cannabis in 2004) decide whether to broaden the law to include chronic pain and PTSD.

After the North Dakota Legislature voted down a measure to permit medical cannabis in 2015, disappointed supporters predicted that citizens would tackle the issue themselves, as they have in many other states. By Christmas, the Morgans found themselves leading that effort as part of a contingent of 25 proponents drawn from the same advocates who’d testified in Bismarck but been turned away.

Getting on the ballot seemed like a long shot. The sponsors and their allies took to the sidewalks in January to garner support. About half of those whom they approached walked away. The other half, though, signed with enthusiasm, queuing up at sports events and political rallies, concerts and home shows, and even along Broadway when Anita marched — petition in hand — in Fargo’s St. Patrick’s Day parade.

In the end, members of every generation, gender and demographic said “yes” and signed the petitions, Ray reports: young mothers and octogenarians, Millennials and Baby Boomers, college students and respected professionals. Virtually all of the diverse corps of supporters cited the same heart-wrenching motive: “Someone they love has had a tough medical journey,” He says. “They need this option.”

Ray, 66, works as a financial advisor with Choice Wealth Management. Anita operates AB Advertizing and has taught advertising at Minnesota State University Moorhead. They, too, have the most personal of reasons for embarking on their mission.

For Ray, it was back surgery in 2012 that went terribly awry, leaving him with permanent debilitating nerve damage in his feet and legs. In addition to agonizing neuropathic pain, he suffers from “drop foot,” a condition that makes walking difficult. His experience with pharmaceutical painkillers, he says, has been horrendous, rife with side effects and the specter of dependency.

Intractable pain like his is one of 17 conditions detailed in Measure 5 that would qualify for access to cannabis-derived pills, tinctures and other medicines. Also on the list are cancer, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy, HIV/AIDS, ALS, agitation caused by Alzheimer’s and PTSD, along with several others.

Patients would need to be certified by a medical doctor to qualify to purchase medications at compassionate care centers around the state. Those who live more than 40 miles from a center could register to grow up to eight plants under locked and closely supervised conditions.

“People equate medical marijuana with smoking it. That’s absolutely not true,” Anita explains. “The therapeutic components are not the same ones that make users high. That’s THC. Most medications are formulated from CBDs, or cannabinoids, that are distilled into oils. They’re administered in tinctures, patches, sublingual drops, edible forms and liquids.”

Despite the potential benefits of these medicines, little research has been done in the U.S., where the drug was among those banned in the 1930s after the end of alcohol prohibition. Other researchers in Europe and Israel, however, have demonstrated positive results. Ironically, some of Israeli scientists’ ground-breaking investigations have been financed with U.S. aid.

While the Drug Enforcement Administration continues to fight to keep marijuana classified as a Schedule I drug deemed to have no therapeutic value, other entities are increasingly calling for serious study and laws to enable medical uses. Among them are the American Legion and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America; the Episcopal, Presbyterian, United Methodist and United Church of Christ, as well as Reform Judaism; and, most recently, the North Dakota Farmers Union, which is urging a “yes” vote.

The pro-medical cannabis advocates have very little financial backing, Ray and Anita point out; most contributions have come via their website, ndmedcan.com. Little organized opposition has emerged, although several newspaper opinions have recommended rejecting the measure … mostly based on the cost of the state’s regulating it. The Morgans believe Health Department estimates are highly exaggerated, based on reports from the many states who’ve already blazed the trail. “Once they get their programs up and running, tax revenues seem to more than cover regulatory costs,” Anita says of her research into other states’ experience with medical cannabis laws.

With growing acceptance of medically prudent cannabis across much of the nation, the Morgans emphasize that North Dakota would not be entering uncharted territory. Instead, they say the campaign — in which they’ve personally invested thousands of hours, along with its other dedicated supporters — aims to bring relief to thousands in desperate need of it.

And it’s about equity.

Anita tells of a friend from Minot whose 16-year-old daughter has suffered since birth from frequent debilitating seizures that limit her life and her future. “Her doctor at the Mayo Clinic has told them, ‘Just move to Moorhead, and we’ll get this taken care of,’” she recounts, referring to Minnesota’s dispensaries of cannabis derivatives.

“Why should they have to be driven out of their home, leaving their families, their jobs, their daughter’s teachers, their friends — everything they value in their lives — to get the treatment their doctors recommend?” Anita asks. “Why should they have to become medical refugees?”

“This is about having a choice,” her husband adds. “Your medical options shouldn’t be determined by your ZIP code. Your doctor should not be gagged if he or she thinks this may be a reasonable alternative.

“We’re not trying to force doctors or patients to use cannabis. It’s just another component to consider.”

For more information on North Dakota Measure 5, go to ndmedcan.com or search ndcompassionatecareact on Facebook.

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