If a stereotype exists for a cannabis-supporting candidate, George D. Hendrickson does not fit the mold. The Sioux Falls resident is a former police officer who always voted Republican, and he arrested plenty of people for cannabis possession before voting against a medical marijuana initiative in 2006. Not too many years later, Hendrickson lists cannabis as one of his top five campaign issues, and judging by all his Facebook posts, it might even be his top issue.
What triggered the change? His five-year-old son, Eliyah, suffers from a rare form of epilepsy called Dravet syndrome, and the Hendrickson family experienced the benefits of medical cannabis firsthand. The revelation transformed the father into an advocate who repeatedly pushed the state legislature to change its stance on medical cannabis, but so far to little avail. Now he's taking it a step further by running for Congress on a platform largely defined by states' rights, bureaucratic reform and legalizing medical cannabis.
Hendrickson is one of five candidates (as of July 2017) running for South Dakota's lone congressional seat, currently held by gubernatorial candidate Kristi Noem. He will run as an independent candidate who will not accept contributions from political action committees. PRØHBTD spoke with the Mount Rushmore State native to learn more.
You're a former police officer with a Republican voting record, yet you listed cannabis as one of your top five issues. Were you always a supporter?
About 10 years ago, we had a [cannabis] ballot initiative in our state, and it was narrowly defeated. At that time, I was still in law enforcement or freshly out, and I still subscribed to all the things we were taught in law enforcement. I voted against it. I still followed the old propaganda machine until years later when—and I hear this story from a lot of people in my state—I suddenly had skin in the game. That seems to be the linchpin: When you're forced to do research, all of a sudden the lights come on. That's how it was for me.
My doctor suggested I look at [medical cannabis] for my son because all the pharmaceuticals had turned my little boy into a shell of a human. Being a trained investigator, I went about things in a very methodical way, and it took less than the first day to figure out I'd been horribly lied to. I was looking through peer-reviewed studies, and I read about the endocannabinoid system and how our body is predisposed to process this plant. I was just amazed at the health attributes and how [medical professionals] were combating different diseases.
You referenced Initiative 4 from the 2006 election, which failed to pass with a 52-47 vote. A similar 2010 measure, Initiative 13, lost by a much wider margin: 63-37. Was there something flawed about the 2010 initiative, or are South Dakotans becoming more resistant to medical cannabis?
No. If I remember correctly, other things on the ballot that year were hot poker items, like a statewide smoking ban. From what I've seen, South Dakota is poised more than ever to have medical cannabis. The groups that I talk to are professional people, retired medical personnel and whatnot, and they all get it. They're onboard as far as medical goes, and that's going to be our strength. The last time around, I think there was so too much cluttering the ballot.
Our awareness of [medical cannabis] has become greater because we now have patients that are very outspoken like myself. I'm a no-garbage kind of guy. If I've got something to say, I say it, and sometimes that doesn't work out so well. That's why I marched myself right up to the front door of the legislature to promote [cannabis] awareness and that's why I've marched back up there every year since. Then national things happened like the Sanjay Gupta special. All these things have been building and bringing awareness to the medical side of this incredible plant and its fabulous attributes. It's mind boggling.
There are efforts to put the South Dakota Medical Marijuana Initiative and two recreational cannabis initiatives on the 2018 ballot. Do you know how these initiatives are faring?
I don't. I talked to the head of New Approach [South Dakota], and she's very optimistic about both of them. I know the [medical and recreational] petitions are being signed pretty much at the same time. I don't push one over the other. For me the fight is medical, but I carry both with me when I'm doing signature petition [outreach]. I'm very focused on the medical end, and no matter what the rec side has, the medical side has a very high probability of passing this year. People are sick and tired of being told no by our legislators when they want something. We had a ballot initiative last year that passed by a strong voice, and our legislature killed it and rewrote their own law. That upset a lot of people.
If the only initiative that made the 2018 ballot was recreational, would you support it?
If it was the only option, I would support it because it would at least give medical relief to people who need it. That's really the bottom line. We will have to leave it up to our legislature to make sure they put in place laws and regulations that help curb public intoxication and ease the community fears about what a rec program might bring, but a lot of those fears could be alleviated. I'm sure we can have the conversation and put together something appropriate. Ultimately, what's best for South Dakota's patients is [the legal access to] medicine.
People are now educated on the medical side, so they're comfortable with it. They realize that it's regulated and controlled, and that's based on education. I just don't think we've had the education talk yet about a recreational side. I question whether we're there yet. I don't know. The people surprise you every time you turn around. Last fall, I heard that the rec was actually polling higher than the med, but I don't know what age group they were polling.
What was your view of cannabis as a police officer? If you could talk to your younger self about it, what would you say?
Actually that's a pretty easy conversation because it was illegal 12 years ago. I did not consider it a life-stopping element because we all grew up around it. Very few people have a zero-knowledge database on cannabis. Being that it was illegal, I was bound by a sworn oath to enforce the laws of the state of South Dakota. With that, we are allowed discretion within our job, and I used discretion when it came to dealing with people who are in possession, just as I used discretion with people who were speeding and whatnot. Rarely do you let a drunk driver walk home. Rarely do you let someone driving with a quarter bag of cannabis walk home. Will I be happy if we're not putting people in jail for that anymore? You know, it's about time we quit putting people in jail for drugs that can't kill them. Sure, it can cause death if you get loaded, get in a car and do something stupid, but that's true of many substances, be it alcohol or caffeine. Our prisons are way too overcrowded with people who had a quarter bag of pot on them, and we need an alternative for our budget's sake alone.
How surprised were you when your son's doctor recommended medical cannabis?
I wasn't terribly surprised. The thought had crossed our minds before because the specialty hospital we needed to handle my son's neurological disorder was in Colorado. Even though that hospital had a policy against allowing it or recommending it at that time, we talked about it. When our doctor mentioned it, the idea went from being a thought I had once or twice to maybe I better do some research.
What type of regimen did you use, and how have the results been?
When we were in Colorado for an extended period of time coming off phenobarbital, we had one of our first experiences using a CBD oil product made from hemp. It came from Jason Cranford at Haleigh's Hope. Within about three days of switching him to the cannabinoid, it was like somebody turned a light switch on in my kid's eyes. (Pause, chokes up, voice starts to crack.) Excuse me. All of a sudden he was just sitting there playing with a spinning toy and looking right at me because he wanted me to play with him. We'd never seen that before.
Now we're back in South Dakota, and there's not a lot we can do about it because [CBD oil] is illegal here. The second time we were in Colorado, we also saw an immense set of gains by using CBN very briefly, but within that brief window, it was quite startling. My son has a subset called ESES, electrical status epilepticus in sleep, that affects about .05 or .5 percent of epileptics. It's pretty rare. There are only two known treatments for it. One is to jack the kid up on Valium and basically try to get his brain to go to sleep so you can reset it, and then slowly bring him off Valium. Well, the CBN sort of works the same way without taking your kid to the point of trying to shut down his brain, so to speak.
We did eventually go through the high-Valium treatment program because we live in a state where we can't keep giving him [CBN]. The high-Valium treatment proved effective, and we were grateful, but we would have prefered to do it with CBN because we know it's safer than benzodiazepines.
On the political front, how do you see yourself pushing the other candidates to have a conversation about cannabis that they might not otherwise have if you weren't in the race?
I don't think they're going to have the conversation about it. One of the Democrats might because I think he realizes his base requires it. We'll see how that turns out. So far, I think they'll avoid the conversation because the Republican stance so far in our state has been that they'll accept medical cannabis as long as it's approved by the FDA and prescribed by a pharmacy.
Hopefully the FDA will make that change soon.
Point number two on my website is government bureaucracy. I think one of the bureaucracies that needs reform is the FDA. They need to stop banning plants that you would grow in your backyard. This is America. We're supposed to be a free country, and that includes being free to make stupid decisions. There's always somebody that will do something dumb and grow the wrong plant in their backyard. I get that, but you know what? We have to allow that in order to be a free society.
The FDA needs to refocus on being responsible for the safety of commercialized food and medicine sold for public consumption. All plant life needs to be left alone and turned over to the Department of Agriculture, whose focus strictly needs to be for commercial grow operations only. That way we've got our government out of our backyard gardens, and if you want to grow wild lettuce and dandelions and a couple of cannabis plants, you can as long as your state legislature allows it.
We need to take it away from the feds and let the states determine these things because the legislatures are better equipped to decide what's best for each state. It's also easier for the citizens of a state to control who's in their legislature. As a South Dakotan, I have a real hard time controlling whatever [Mitch] McConnell or [Chuck] Schumer or [Paul] Ryan or [Nancy] Pelosi wants to do. They try to strong arm something over my state, and there's nothing I can do about it unless I take that authority away from them and give it back to my state legislature where it belongs. That's the point. Our state can determine if you should be allowed to have one or two plants in your backyard for personal consumption because you should be eating it like lettuce every day for the health attributes alone.
You switched from being a Republican to an independent because you had concerns over corporate influence that now affects both major political parties. When did you make this change, and can you elaborate on how you came to this decision?
Dissatisfaction with the Republican Party's been brewing for me. Every season, we watch them just diddle around and not really do things that represent the people or even their constituency, which is the people who elect them, not the corporations who pay for their campaigns. We struggle year after year to get a bill passed just for a simple [CBD] oil in our state, and we can't get it done. As soon as GW Pharmaceuticals shows up and the wheels get greased, the thing comes flying through the legislature. Now we're sitting with a bill that says CBD oil in our state has to have FDA approval.
I realized that I had to evaluate my core belief system as a fiscal conservative who understands the plight of, one, a disabled child, and two, living in a single-income household under the median level. Things I understand from that [experience] don't fit within the Republican movement, such as the first item in Repeal and Replace [Obamacare] that punches Social Security and Medicaid right in the throat. The first people they're going to affect are the elderly and the disabled. Well, if it was the Republican Party of 40 years ago, they first would have said, "What bureaucracies can we cut to make up for the shortfall? Where do we have duplication? Where can we help the middle class, the poor, the elderly and the disabled?" They wouldn't just hit those people with a throat punch.
I'm kind of a Heinz 57 dog, I guess. I'm part libertarian, I'm part conservative, and I have a whole bunch of liberal wiggling in there. I talk to a lot of [current and former Republicans] who say, "You know what? I don't vote party anymore. I vote for the person," or they'll say, "That's why I changed to an independent." I guess you could say I'm too liberal for the conservatives and I'm too conservative for the liberals, and that sticks me in the middle.
David Jenison (email@example.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.