South Dakota Activists File Measure That Could Put Marijuana Legalization On Ballot For Third Election In A Row

South Dakota activists have taken a first step toward putting marijuana legalization on the state ballot for the third time in as many election cycles.

Voters rejected the campaign’s most recent reform initiative last month, but advocates say low turnout during a midterm election and insufficient funding were largely to blame, pointing out that an earlier 2020 legalization measure was approved by voters before being invalidated by the state Supreme Court amid a legal challenge led by the governor.

While South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws (SDBML) hasn’t necessarily committed to pursuing another reform measure at the ballot in 2024, activists are exploring funding options and feel confident legalization would prevail, especially considering that presidential election years see greater turnout by young and liberal voters who broadly support legalization.

SDBML recently submitted the text of a reform initiative to the state Legislative Research Council (LRC), Dakota News Now reported. That body will complete a review of the measure as one of the first steps on the path to the ballot.

It’s not clear if the text has been revised from its 2022 form, but that measure was kept intentionally simple to avoid a single-subject challenge, which is what led to the earlier 2020 version being invalidated by the court.

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The initiative that voters defeated last month would have allowed adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to an ounce of cannabis. They could have also grown up to three plants for personal use. The measure did not touch on regulatory policies concerning taxing cannabis sales, licensing or equity.

SDBML Director Matthew Schweich didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from Marijuana Moment, but he told Dakota News Now that the group is “eager to restore the will of the people.”

“The biggest hurdle is making sure we can run a well-funded campaign, and it’s too early for me to say whether we can or not,” Schweich, who also serves as deputy director of the national Marijuana Policy Project, said. “So we’re going to move through the process while trying to build up a group of people that can donate generously and make sure we have a well-funded campaign.”

While it waits to hear back from LRC about the text of its potential 2024 ballot initiative, SDBML is also preparing to advocate for cannabis reform in the upcoming 2023 legislative session.

Meanwhile, prohibitionists are also gearing up for another fight, with the group Protecting South Dakota Kids saying that they plan to launch a non-profit to oppose efforts to legalize marijuana and put a lobbyist in the legislature to advocate against the reform.

Rep. Fred Deutsch (R), who serves as treasurer of the group, said he plans to push legislation to block activists from putting the same issue on the ballot in successive election cycles.

Ahead of the November election, a poll released in October found that 51 percent of South Dakotans planned to vote against the legalization measure, while 40 percent said they’d be supporting it and 10 percent remained undecided. That was the third poll in a row showing the legalization measure behind.

Schweich previously told Marijuana Moment that the state campaign had felt largely ignored by national cannabis businesses who’ve put their lobbying focus into Congress with currently little to show for it.

SDBML also launched an ad ahead of the election that reminded South Dakotans about how a lawsuit led by Gov. Kristi Noem (R) ultimately caused the state Supreme Court to invalidate the earlier 2020 legalization measure that voters approved. The legalization campaign separately conducted a 10-day statewide tour to register voters and educate the electorate about the initiative.

While the governor has more recently worked to align herself with the state’s medical cannabis program that was also approved by voters in 2020, despite previously opposing it and the complementary recreational measure, she said in August that she was committed to fulfilling her job and seeing through the implementation of adult-use legalization if voters ended up approving 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), the Democratic gubernatorial nominee who challenged Noem this year, has also taken the governor to task over her prior efforts to overturn voter-approved legalization, releasing ads in August that remind voters of the interference.

A poll released in late 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, 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.

In the 2022 legislative session, the House rejected a legalization bill that the Senate had passed, effectively leaving it up to activists to get on the ballot again.

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

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Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.

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