With less than a month until Election Day, a South Dakota marijuana legalization initiative is still trailing in the second of two recent public polls, with a new survey finding that a slim plurality of voters are opposed to the measure.
But the campaign South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws (SDBML) says it isn’t deterred. Activists announced on Wednesday that they’re launching a 10-day statewide tour to register voters and educate the electorate about the initiative.
According to the survey from South Dakota State University that was released on Thursday, that effort could prove critical. It found that 45 percent of voters back the legalization proposal, while 47 percent said that they’re against it and eight percent remain undecided.
This is the second poll showing most South Dakotans opposed to the initiative, despite the fact that 54 percent of voters approved adult-use legalization at the ballot in 2020, only to have that measure invalidated by the courts following a legal challenge led by Gov. Kristi Noem (R).
The latest survey showed a sizable partisan divide on the issue, with 71 percent of Democrats in favor of the reform and 68 percent of Republicans against it. Fifty-one percent of independents back the measure.
SDBML remains optimistic that it will prevail, but the campaign is also stepping up its push to register voters before the October 24 deadline.
“We really want to connect with our supporters and also train volunteers—but, above all, register people to vote,” Matthew Schweich, director of SDFBM, said at a press conference on Wednesday. “We’ve put a big emphasis on voter registration because it’s the right thing to do.”
Schweich added that this election cycle has seen “a lot of misinformation,” and he said that the campaign’s internal polling shows majority support for the measure at 54 percent, which he considers “an accurate reflection of where we’re at right now.”
“I’m not comfortable with 54 percent. I think this is a close race,” he said. “We need our people to come out and vote. We need people to register to vote. We can’t be complacent. Complacency is probably the greatest risk in every place.”
A separate poll from South Dakota News Watch and the University of South Dakota that was released in August found just 44 percent of respondents in favor of the legalization measure.
While the campaign pointed to what it viewed as inconsistencies in that survey, activists still aren’t taking the results for granted.
Schweich said that SDBML will be focusing “on the messages that we know resonate with voters” as they make the final push.
The plan is to communicate to voters—including during the statewide tour and forthcoming advertisements—that “cannabis prohibition is a waste of law enforcement time and resources, that it’s still too difficult to access the medical cannabis law and that politicians to respect the initiative process.”
“Measure 27 is an opportunity to restore the will of the people,” he said.
The new survey from SDSU involved interviews with 565 registered South Dakota voters from September 28-October 10, with a +/-4 percentage point margin of error.
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.
When legalization was on the 2020 ballot, it passed handily. But following the legal challenge led by Noem, the state Supreme Court ultimately invalidated the vote on procedural grounds, finding that the measure violated the state Constitution’s single subject rule.
To avoid that problem this round, the 2022 initiative 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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