Recreational marijuana backers try to overcome rocky history in South Dakota

Advocates of legalizing recreational marijuana in South Dakota, a mission with a rocky history, submitted thousands of signatures to election officials on Tuesday in the hopes of once again getting the issue on the conservative state’s November ballot.

Supporters of the initiative turned in about 29,000 signatures to Secretary of State Monae Johnson’s office. They need 17,508 valid signatures to make the November ballot. Johnson’s office has until Aug. 13 to validate the signatures.

Twenty-four states have legalized recreational marijuana, including as recently as November 2023 in Ohio, but “no state has as interesting or rocky or turbulent a story than South Dakota,” said South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws Campaign Director Matthew Schweich.

Florida voters will decide whether to legalize recreational marijuana this fall. Similar measure efforts are underway in other states, including North Dakota.

In 2020, South Dakota voters approved a medical marijuana initiative and also passed a measure that would have legalized recreational marijuana. But the latter was ultimately struck down when the South Dakota Supreme Court upheld a judge’s ruling that it violated a single-subject rule for constitutional amendments — a challenge begun by Gov. Kristi Noem. Measure backers tried again in 2022, but voters defeated the proposal. In 2021, Noem sought to delay legalization of medical marijuana by a year, a proposal that died in the Republican-led Legislature.

Schweich cites several reasons to support the measure, including that it would allow law enforcement resources to be directed elsewhere, increase access for people who have difficulty getting medical marijuana patient cards, and generate new tax revenue and jobs.

“I think for me, the strongest reason at its core is that if we’re going to allow alcohol to be legal in our society, then it makes absolutely no sense to punish people for using cannabis because alcohol is more harmful to the individual and to society than cannabis,” Schweich said.

Protecting South Dakota Kids, a nonprofit group that opposes legalizing marijuana in the state, fought against the 2022 effort. The Associated Press left a phone message seeking comment on the 2024 initiative with the organization’s chairman, Jim Kinyon. In a pamphlet issued in opposition to the 2022 measure, he wrote that legalization “would swing the door wide open for higher crime rates, increased suicide rates, traffic fatalities, workplace injuries, and mental health problems.”

The ballot initiative would legalize recreational marijuana for people 21 and older. The proposal has possession limits of 2 ounces of marijuana in a form other than concentrated cannabis or cannabis products, as well as 16 grams of the former and 1,600 mg of THC contained in the latter. The measure also allows cultivation of plants, with restrictions.

The measure doesn’t include business licensing, taxation or other regulations. Schweich said the single-subject rule at the heart of the 2021 court ruling tied his hands “in terms of writing the type of comprehensive policy I would have liked to write.”

“We’re taking a conservative approach in response to this ruling and not taking any chances,” he said.

Measure backers, if successful, plan to work with the Legislature next year to pass implementation legislation “that will spell out those missing pieces,” he said.

South Dakota outlaws marijuana possession, distribution and possession with intent to distribute, with varying misdemeanor and felony penalties according to factors such as amount and second or subsequent convictions.

The federal government has proposed reclassifying marijuana as a less dangerous drug, a move Schweich said might help to normalize the issue for certain voters.

Schweich said the unique circumstances of the issue in South Dakota justify the third attempt. He thinks the initiative has a better chance this year, when voters are likely to turn out in bigger numbers to vote for president, and possibly to weigh in on an abortion rights initiative that others hope to get on the ballot.

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