PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — South Dakota’s medical-cannabis program that voters established in 2020 has proven more popular than expected, but its future is financially uncertain, according to its administrator.

Jennifer Seale made those points Monday to the Legislature’s Medical Marijuana Oversight Committee.

Seale said the original projection was that the state Department of Health would issue 6,000 patient cards by the third year of the program. The department had already issued 11,437 cards through a year and a half, she said.

The department issued its first card to a patient in November 2021. The first dispensary opened in January 2022 and the first legal harvest of South Dakota-grown cannabis occurred in June 2022.

Seale is the new program’s third administrator. She said the program relies on revenues from cannabis business registrations and patient cards. Those sources totaled $1,370,568 revenues in the budget year that ended June 30.

The unknowns she identified were when the patient pool will be saturated, whether the number of establishments will get smaller — there are 139 currently licensed – and what the costs will be to enhance software systems used to track patients and purchases.

Seale said the department is working on a new set of proposed rules. They hadn’t been publicly posted as of Monday afternoon. She showed the oversight panel a timeline calling for the package to be presented on November 7 to the Legislature’s Rules Review Committee.

The committee selected Republican Senator Erin Tobin as its chair and Republican Rep. Roger DeGroot as vice chair. DeGroot said he was impressed with the safeguards in place but is bothered by stories about people circumventing the bona fide patient-practitioner process to get cards. “I believe that will have to be answered in my mind going forward,” DeGroot said.

Republican Rep. Fred Deutsch, an opponent of legalizing recreational marijuana, recounted his experience getting a medical marijuana card at a pop-up clinic in Watertown. He said he could clearly hear the conversations between the nurse practitioner and the people seeking cards. “There was no privacy whatsoever. HIPAA was out the door.”

According to Deutsch, the nurse practitioner looked at his medical records, noted that he had been in a traffic accident, asked whether he still felt pain, and certified him for a patient card for a year.

Deutsch said he then asked her whether using marijuana could conflict with any of his current medicines, but she said he needed to talk to his primary doctor. She told him he needed to ask other questions of the shops that sell marijuana. After seven or eight minutes, the meeting was done: “I left feeling, ‘A hundred seventy bucks – there was no examination.’”

Deutsch shared with the committee a possible change in the definition of a bona fide practitioner-patient relationship. He wants it to be the patient’s primary doctor, or a board-certified specialist, or a referral by any of them to another practitioner. “I think it would help a lot in providing quality care, in relation to popup clinics,” he said.

Katie Kassin, a committee member from Vermillion, asked Deutsch whether his opinion of requiring a practitioner at the end of some period to submit information to the department regarding the number of cards issued by the practitioner. “I don’t know if that’s something I would be thrilled about doing,” Deutsch said. “I just want to know there’s a real relationship, that the practitioner knows the person.” 

South Dakota Highway Patrol Captain Matt Oxner relayed to the committee his perspectives gathered from troopers in the field. He said they’ve seen a large increase in patient cards and they’re concerned, including cards issued from hotel rooms, and they’ve been finding marijuana in bags that don’t appear to have come from a medical marijuana outlet.

According to Oxner, troopers also have been seeing large amounts of products coming into South Dakota and troopers are seizing large amounts, including at the Sturgis rally. He acknowledged not having statistics to support his observation but said they’re seeing “a dramatic increase in underage kids” without cards using medical marijuana.

Oxner said parolees who are banned from using alcohol have received medical marijuana cards. The troopers also have been running into large amounts of other cannabinoids.

Troopers have field tests to check traditional types of cannabis but there isn’t roadside testing for edibles, according to Oxner, and they have to rely on field sobriety tests to show impairment because there isn’t a blow test for marijuana.

As for state-issued patient cards versus patient cards issued by tribal governments, Oxner said tribal cards were seen more often in the months after legalization, but in recent months the number has flattened or they aren’t seeing as many tribal cards

Republican Senator Jim Mehlhaff said he’s seen various candy-types of cartridges for dispensing marijuana. Oxner replied, “We have seen that stuff for a long time.” He listed eye drops, breath strips and personal lubrication as other delivery methods. “You name it, they’ve now made products with THC inside it,” Oxner said.

Bill Van Camp, a Pierre lawyer representing the construction trades, said there are safety concerns about marijuana use. He suggested that the state’s testing law should be strengthened.

The committee discussed ideas. Mehlhaff talked about strengthening the firewall against cross-ownership by marijuana businesses so that it would be similar to the alcohol industry.

Tobin said capping the cards that can be issued in a day would remove some of the financial incentive for popup clinics. She also suggested capping the amount that a practitioner can charge for issuing a card.

The committee assigned topics for further research and will meet at least once more before the 2024 legislative session opens January 9.