Recreational marijuana supporters are trying to overcome South Dakota’s troubled history

Supporters of legalizing recreational marijuana in South Dakota have filed petitions to bring the issue back into the spotlight on the November ballot

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

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

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

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

Schweich cites several reasons for supporting the measure, including that it could focus law enforcement resources elsewhere, increase access for people who have difficulty obtaining medical marijuana patient cards, and generate new tax revenue and jobs.

“I think the strongest reason at its core is that if we allow alcohol to be legal in our society, then there is absolutely no point in punishing people for using cannabis because alcohol is more harmful to the individual and to the society than cannabis,” Schweich said.

Protecting South Dakota Kids, a nonprofit that opposes legalizing marijuana in the state, fought the 2022 effort. The Associated Press left a phone message with the organization’s president, Jim Kinyon, seeking comment on the 2024 initiative. In a pamphlet issued in opposition to the 2022 measure, he wrote that legalization would “open the door wide to higher crime rates, higher 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 a possession limit 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 in the latter. The measure also allows the cultivation of plants, with restrictions.

The measure does not include business permits, taxes or other regulations. Schweich said the one-subject rule at the heart of the court’s 2021 ruling left his hands tied “in terms of writing the kind of comprehensive policy that I would have liked to write.”

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

If the promoters are successful, they plan to work with the Legislature next year to pass implementing legislation “that will clarify the missing pieces,” he said.

South Dakota prohibits the possession, distribution, and possession with intent to distribute of marijuana, with varying penalties for misdemeanors and misdemeanors depending on factors such as quantity and second or subsequent convictions.

The federal government has proposed reclassifying marijuana as a less dangerous drug, a move that Schweich said could help normalize the issue for some voters.

Schweich said the unique circumstances of the issue in South Dakota warrant the third attempt. He thinks the initiative has a better chance this year, when voters are likely to cast ballots for the president in greater numbers, and possibly buy into an abortion rights initiative that others hope to get on the ballot.