'Amazing floor speech' from Rep. Ernie Otten leads change for vets, first responders to get medical marijuana
“But dear lord God in heaven, don’t give 'em the wacky weed. That’s going to harm them,” the Tea Area lawmaker said sarcastically
PIERRE, S.D. — Ernie Otten’s speech was about tradeoffs.
Though the medical basis of cannabis, he admitted, may not be well established, its ability to induce an appetite or a good night’s sleep is self-evident.
For first responders and veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, Otten said, there are a few options for avoiding sleepless nights — pills that “get ‘em so strung out they don’t know up from down;” a “good quart of bourbon;” or, worse yet, heightened rates of suicide: “it’s fine for them to eat a 45.”
“But dear lord God in heaven, don’t give 'em the wacky weed. That’s going to harm them,” he said to finish the point during the March 6 floor speech. “What? We’re talking about a good night’s sleep, for heaven’s sake.”
When the vote lit up in front of the House of Representatives, the monologue appeared to have worked: 36 lawmakers in favor of Senate Bill 1, and not a vote to spare.
“That was an amazing floor speech,” said Jeremiah Murphy, a longtime lobbyist now working on behalf of the cannabis industry among other clients. “It was thoughtful, it was objective.”
The legislation, now sitting on Gov. Kristi Noem’s desk, adds PTSD and a handful of other conditions to the state’s medical cannabis program, offering a bit more specificity to providers who until now have worked off a set of symptoms in their cannabis diagnoses.
For Otten, the floor speech was a culmination of a prolonged process toward becoming one of the South Dakota Legislature’s strongest advocates for continuing to expand a medical cannabis program approved by the voters less than three years ago.
‘When the voters passed it, I was shaking my head’
Even two years ago, Otten, a Republican representative from Tea, would not have given that speech. As he admitted during the Senate Bill 1 monologue, he has “killed more marijuana bills than [he] ever supported” in his decade-plus career in Pierre.
“It’s been a very long journey for me,” he said.
But what planted the seed of a change in perspective was the 2020 vote on Initiated Measure 26, as more than 7 in 10 voters in his district voted in favor of creating a medical marijuana program in the state.
Though not initially in favor of the change — “I was shaking my head,” he said — the first step for Otten was talking with people around the district about their experiences with cannabis.
“They were opening up and telling me that, yes, they were using it. And when you asked why it was principally, ‘It helps me sleep at night, and I don't like some of the drugs that the doctor has stuck me with,’ ” Otten recalled. “I started looking at the whole situation just a little bit better; what we were talking about was just a little bit of compassion for folks.”
As you might expect, Otten, a longtime lawmaker who spends most of his time dealing with the concrete intricacies of the state budget on the appropriations committee, did not change his mind overnight.
“[Medical marijuana] was extremely popular in his district,” Murphy said. “But that said, he didn't just go from there to advocacy. That made him look into it. He's done his homework.”
After the successful ballot initiative in 2020, lawmakers held an interim study on the implementation of the initiative in the 2021 summer and kicked off the Medical Marijuana Oversight Committee one year later. Otten served on both.
He recounts a visit to a dispensary and grow operation in Iowa, lengthy phone calls with cannabis experts and a visit to the Flandreau cannabis operation as memorable research outings: the first two taught him that medical cannabis could potentially be implemented safely; the second taught him that there was an easily accessible and untouchable market if South Dakota lawmakers chose to do nothing.
“I left there shaking my head,” Otten said after his Flandreau outing. “It’s a genie that can never get stuck back into the bottle. I’ve got a lot of pragmatism and try to live in, not what might be, but what is, and try to work my way through that.”
Lawmakers play tug-of-war with cannabis policy
In a lot of ways, Otten’s evolution on the issue matches the proliferation of the medical cannabis program in South Dakota.
He’s certainly not advocating, in his words, for “a joint for everybody,” but rather modest steps forward in a program competing with easily obtainable marijuana from a variety of above and below-board sources.
However, looking at the debate around Senate Bill 1, not everyone feels the same way about South Dakota’s medical cannabis program.
“If all we’re concerned about is compassion, and not doing what’s right, what the evidence shows, we’re only doing part of our job,” Rep. Fred Deutsch, of Florence, said during floor debate, arguing that studies of cannabis use in other countries indicate a jump in suicide rates among users.
Otten criticized how Senate Bill 1 and dozens of other cannabis bills tweaking parts of an already-in-place program this legislative session have become more about “being pro and anti-marijuana” rather than, as he puts it, living in the reality of the situation.
But Deutsch and others in both chambers are worried about the blurred lines between a medical and recreational program, especially if less-than-scrupulous providers working in “pop-up clinics” — which supposedly offer medical cards to anyone willing to pay — remain unregulated.
Sen. Erin Tobin, who chairs the Medical Marijuana Oversight Committee with Otten as vice-chair, has been similarly critical of the contingent of lawmakers, including Deutsch, looking to add further oversight burdens to the nascent program, arguing they will scare away the trustworthy providers that the program should be attempting to attract.
“I thought the Legislature had a really good apt for understanding what bills were brought forward that weren't going to help and what bills were brought forward that were going to help,” she said, noting that the House and Senate had tight, but manageable, margins on cannabis issues.
In Otten’s view, those opposed to the medical cannabis program in the state slipped in one victory this session: a set of changes to the membership of the Medical Marijuana Oversight Committee, removing some patients and industry representatives to make room for more lawmakers.
“That was just principally done, in my opinion, to make it tougher for people to get on the program,” he said. “Because we're going to end up getting people on there that are anti-marijuana and don't want anything to do with it.”
Tobin was not as pessimistic, thinking the recommendations of the committee may come to hold more weight with the new makeup.
Either way, in the yearslong, complex task of forming coalitions and keeping programs like medical cannabis stable, Murphy said lawmakers like Otten who weren’t immediate proponents can be immensely valuable.
“It’s how you'd hope all legislators would look at issues. Not that they're necessarily going to go to the other side,” he said. “But really kind of turn it around in your hands and hold it up to the light a little and see what you can learn from it.”
Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or firstname.lastname@example.org.