Marijuana is the subject of 49 bills in the Legislative hopper. That’s 8.9% of the 551 bills submitted for the 2022 Session. For comparison, agriculture, ag land, and animals and livestock together have drawn only 15 bills (and one of those, Senate Bill 201, deals with industrial hemp), while education has drawn 26 bills and taxation has drawn 33 bills (two of which deal with taxation of marijuana).
One of the pending marijuana bills catches my eye this morning. House Bill 1136, proposed by Representative Rhonda Milstead (R-9/Wall Lake), would collect and report more data on cannabis use and abuse in South Dakota. HB 1136 directs the Department of Revenue to submit the following data to the Legislature annually:
- number of medical marijuana cardholders, by medical condition
- age and sex of cardholders
- number of practitioners certifying cardholders, by specialty
- number of medical cannabis establishments
- number of licensing violations
- number of emergency room visits and hospitalizations related to cannabis
HB 1136 also requires cannabis reports from a number of other agencies:
- Public Safety: number of DUIs and traffic fatalities related to cannabis
- Attorney General: number of cannabis-related arrests for possession, sales, cultivation, and manufacturing of concentrates; number of incidents involving unlawful operation of medical cannabis establishments; and number of organized crime incidents engaged in illegal cannabis activity
- Social Services: number of patients seeking counseling for cannabis addiction
- Education: number of school suspensions or expulsions related to cannabis use
- Unified Justice System: number of juveniles arrested for cannabis-related offenses
Milstead did ask, and the House obliged, to amend out of HB 1136 a requirement that Education report survey data on the rate of cannabis use by students by grade level. Representative Milstead said student responses to that survey are too arbitrary and subjective to provide reliable data for informing future policymaking (at which point we should ask why we bother to administer that survey, but that’s a debate for House Education and another blog post). The House proceeded to pass HB 1136 as amended on a 38–30 vote.
Rep. Milstead told the House that “data and research are critical” to understanding “the impact on our community, our children, and our health.” Yet her HB 1136 appears to focus on only half of the data on medical cannabis, the bad half. Section 1 seeks some neutral data—raw numbers of patients and providers—but then the rest of the bill hunts for trouble. Policymakers looking at the annual reports required by HB 1136 would see nothing but negative impact: crime, addiction, illness, and disruption of education.
Certainly when we study the impact of any drug or medical intervention, we watch for unwanted side effects. But we also watch for signs that the medical intervention does what we intended. We then balance the benefits with the risks to determine whether that drug or treatment is worth offering and, if so, how we manage it.
There’s nothing wrong with collecting data on medical marijuana. But if we’re going to make policy on the basis of that data, we need complete data, showing benefits and risks, not a report that assumes medical marijuana is bad and must only be further restricted. House Bill 1136 ignores the most important data we could ask for about medical marijuana: does it work?
When Senate Health and Human Services takes up HB 1136, it should amend HB 1136 to seek data on medical outcomes. It should direct the Department of Health and the USD Medical School to annually survey South Dakota doctors about what benefits, if any, medical marijuana provides to patients. Then if we see a small increase in cannabis arrests or addiction treatment, we can say, as we do with gambling and alcohol, sure there are social costs, but the benefits we get outweigh those costs—and, unlike gambling and alcohol, the benefits we get wouldn’t just be tax revenues and more fun in Deadwood but patients experiencing less pain and seizures and less addiction to opioids. Then again, an expanded HB 1136 seeking data on medical outcomes could discover that medical marijuana isn’t reliably producing any of the promised medical results, which would be more direct and compelling evidence than any correlations with arrests and mob hits that the state should shut this medicine show down.