PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — Two South Dakota lawmakers with roots in law enforcement said Thursday that people charged with possessing small amounts of marijuana should be able to defend themselves in court by arguing they need if for medical reasons.
Rep. Dan Kaiser, R-Aberdeen, a police officer, and Sen. Craig Tieszen, R-Rapid City, a retired police chief, told a South Dakota House committee that their bill would not legalize marijuana or set up a system where people could get it for medical purposes. But they said people suffering or dying from cancer or debilitating diseases should be able to use medical necessity as a defense if they are arrested for possessing two ounces or less of marijuana.
"We're just giving the person dying of a crippling disease the opportunity, if the judge allows them, to offer a defense," Kaiser said.
However, state and local law enforcement officials urged the committee to reject the bill, saying it would open the door to eventual legalization of marijuana in the state.
The Health and Human Services Committee heard opening testimony on the bill Thursday, but delayed a vote on it until at least Tuesday.
Under the bill, someone charged with possessing marijuana could ask a judge to allow a defense based on medical need. The judge could consider expert testimony and recommendations by doctors in determining whether that person has a medical need to use marijuana.
Asked about the proposal at his weekly press conference, Gov. Dennis Daugaard, said he hadn't read the bill but didn't like the idea.
"I don't in concept support the notion of a defense like that. I think it's tantamount to legalizing medical marijuana use. It's something the voters have rejected and that I personally reject as well," the Republican governor said.
South Dakota voters in 2006 and 2010 rejected medical marijuana ballot measures that would have given patients suffering from debilitating diseases legal access to marijuana.
Tieszen said he does not want to create a system where people get advance permission to use marijuana for medical purposes and then buy it from licensed shops. The bill merely offers critically ill people a possible defense in court if marijuana helps them deal with pain or nausea, he said.
Tieszen said he does not know of any other state that has a similar law.
Bryan Gortmaker, director of the state Division of Criminal Investigation, said selling marijuana would still be illegal if the bill passes. Allowing a medical defense in possession cases would attract dealers to South Dakota, he said.
"It's going to encourage the distribution of marijuana in our state," Gortmaker said. "If marijuana usage is encouraged in South Dakota, the profiteers, those looking to make money off this, will come with it."
Minnehaha County States Attorney Aaron McGowan said the measure would clog up the courts with hearings and jury trials on misdemeanor possession charges because many people would argue they need the marijuana for medical treatment.
"It will be burdensome to the taxpayer," McGowan said.
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