Big Marijuana Businesses Are Failing State Legalization Efforts, South Dakota Campaign Says As Another Poll Shows Initiative Trailing

With yet another poll showing a South Dakota marijuana legalization ballot initiative trailing, a top activist is calling out the national cannabis industry for pumping money into “expensive fancy D.C. lobbyists” that have achieved “virtually nothing” at the federal level while state campaigns are “starving” for resources.

The survey from KELOLAND News, Emerson College and The Hill released on Tuesday shows that 51 percent of South Dakotans plan to vote against the legalization measure next month, while 40 percent said they’ll be supporting it and 10 percent remain undecided.

Those numbers indicate that the reform measure could see a different fate compared to when voters in the state approved a 2020 legalization initiative, only for it to be overturned in the courts.

There’s little time left for South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws (SDBML) to convince the undecided and sway opponents. But the campaign says its ability to reach voters this cycle has been limited by a lack of interest and financial contributions from large cannabis businesses.

SDBML Director Matthew Schweich, who also serves as deputy director of the national Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment on Tuesday that, in general, “it’s never been more difficult to predict who’s going to show up in an election.” And while the campaign isn’t convinced that recent polling accurately reflects voter sentiment toward the initiative, it has felt largely ignored by the industry as more resources have been pumped into Washington, D.C.

“I believe we’re going to have a good result on Election Day in spite of these polls,” Schweich said. “Our focus is on working hard, which is what we’ve been doing for the past year.”

But that hard work costs money—something that fewer major marijuana brands seem to be willing to offer to the state-level effort. Schweich said that 70 percent of the campaign’s funding has come from South Dakota businesses, which “underscores the fact that there is no philanthropic national support for cannabis reform anymore.”

“The future of cannabis reform ballot initiatives is going to be 100 percent industry-funded,” he said. “I’m deeply frustrated with the biggest cannabis companies in this country, who have been wasting their money on D.C. lobbyists and have achieved virtually nothing. Meanwhile, state-level reforms are starving even though all our progress has been at the state level.”

“Thousands of dollars are wasted on federal efforts that should have been directed to the state level,” he said. “They’ve got their priorities backwards.”

Even with Democratic majorities in the current Congress, no substantive marijuana reform legislation has been enacted despite increased lobbying from the industry. The House has twice passed a cannabis legalization bill and approved marijuana banking legislation in some form seven times, but the proposals have stalled in the Senate under Democratic and Republican control.

That said, leadership is expected to file a package of incremental reforms during the lame duck session after the election, and many are hopeful that bipartisan and bicameral negotiations will produce something passable that could be sent to President Joe Biden’s desk before the end of the session.

Campaign finance records that were submitted on Monday show that SDBML raised $492,647 from May 19 to October 19, with the bulk of that ($436,000) coming from businesses, 75 percent of which are South Dakota-based.

“South Dakota-based cannabis businesses have stepped up,” Schweich said. But the same can’t be said of national, big-dollar cannabis businesses and stakeholders, he argued.

“I’m the guy in the trenches who does five different jobs and hasn’t taken a day off since August. Sometimes I wish I were a D.C. lobbyist who had to take three meetings each week and have every weekend to spend with my family,” he said. “I choose to fight the good fight.”

Another factor working against the campaign is the fact that they’re running this initiative during a midterm election year, rather than a year with the presidency on the ticket, when younger and more liberal voters tend to show up at the polls.

Conservative voters are more likely to dominate midterm elections, and the new polling shows why that could be seriously problematic for the campaign. Majorities of Democrats (59 percent) and independents (54 percent) say they’ll vote for Initiative Measure 27. But 66 percent of Republicans say they’ll vote against it.

The survey involved interviews with a sample of likely voters from October 19-21, with a +/-2.4 percentage point margin of error. This is the third poll in a row showing the legalization measure behind as the election quickly approaches.

Despite the polling and limited budget, Schweich says, “I still believe we’re going to win this campaign.”

SDBML also recently launched a new ad that reminds South Dakotans about how a lawsuit led by Gov.  Kristi Noem (R) ultimately caused the state Supreme Court to invalidate a 2020 legalization measure that voters approved. The court sided with the administration that the prior initiative violated the single-subject ballot rule.

Meanwhile, opponents also released an ad that aims to stoke fears about the impact of legalization on children, starting with a narrator showing video of kids and saying “these are future drug addicts, future suicide victims, future victims of an impaired driver.”

The legalization campaign separately announced this month that it was launching a 10-day statewide tour to register voters and educate the electorate about the initiative.

Activists already cleared a major hurdle by submitting enough valid signatures to qualify the marijuana measure for the November ballot. They turned in nearly 20,000, and the secretary of state’s office confirmed in May that they met the required 16,961 signatures for ballot placement.

To avoid the single-subject problem that led to the 2020 initiative’s invalidation, the 2022 measure omits the previous version’s provisions that dealt with taxes and regulations, leaving those decisions up to the legislature.

While the governor has more recently worked to align herself with the state’s medical cannabis program, despite previously opposing both 2020 cannabis measures, she said in August that she’s committed to fulfilling her job and seeing through the implementation of recreational legalization if voters approve it this year.

She said that the 2022 measure “is written more appropriately towards the Constitution,” signaling that she would not subject it to another legal challenge.

But the idea that Noem—who vetoed a modest hemp reform bill in 2019 and actively urged voters to oppose the adult-use measure in TV ads the following year—is now content to implement legalization if voters approve it has raised some eyebrows.

House Minority Leader Jamie Smith (D), who is the Democratic nominee challenging the governor this year, has also taken Noem to task over her prior efforts to interfere in voter-approved legalization, releasing ads in August that remind voters of the interference.

A poll released in December 2021 found that most South Dakota voters approved of Noem’s job performance overall, but just 39 percent supported her handling of marijuana legalization, with 51 percent disapproving.

Noem tried to get the legislature to approve a bill to delay implementation of the medical cannabis program for an additional year, but while it cleared the House, negotiators were unable to reach an agreement with the Senate in conference, delivering a defeat to the governor.

In response, her office started exploring a compromise last year, with one proposal that came out of her administration to decriminalize possession of up to one ounce of cannabis, limit the number of plants that patients could cultivate to three and prohibit people under 21 from qualifying for medical marijuana.


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Following the court ruling that invalidated the earlier ballot box win, activists decided to take a two-track approach to the policy change in 2022, both working with legislators for a legislative reform while separately collecting signatures for the ballot initiative if lawmakers failed to act.

While they would have preferred lawmakers to enact the policy change, that did not materialize this session. The House rejected a Senate-passed legalization bill in March, effectively leaving it up to activists to get on the ballot again.

SDBML has said that it intends to work with lawmakers on that measure while continuing to push for the ballot measure.

Here’s what the campaign’s marijuana legalization ballot initiative would accomplish if approved by voters: 

The measure would allow adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to an ounce of cannabis. They could also grow up to three plants for personal use.

It also lays out civil penalties for violating provisions related to issues such as public consumption or growing more plants than permitted.

Employers would specifically be allowed to continue enforcing workplace drug policy prohibiting cannabis use by workers.

State and local governments could continue to ban marijuana activities made legal under the initiative in buildings “owned, leased, or occupied” by a governmental body.

The measure does not touch on regulatory policies concerning taxing cannabis sales, licensing or equity.

A Marijuana Interim Study Committee, headed by legislative leaders, was established last year to explore cannabis policy reform, and the panel ultimately recommended that the legislature take up legalization this session. The House-defeated legislation was one of the direct products of that recommendation.

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Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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