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South Dakota Will Try to Legalize Cannabis in a Red State

PHOTO Wilson Hui


South Dakota Will Try to Legalize Cannabis in a Red State

A recreational cannabis ballot initiative qualifies for the November election and will share space with a medical initiative.

For all the support in the polls and all the victories at the ballot boxes cannabis enjoyed over the last decade, legalization does have its limits. For example, no state has skipped over medical cannabis and gone straight to allowing all adults 21 and over to possess and use marijuana, no doctor’s note required. And, in spite of bipartisan support from voters, so far, none of the 11 states where cannabis is sold in regulated stores are in the deep-red, reliably conservative heartland America. (Michigan, recall, exited the “blue wall” in 2016 by only 0.2% of the vote.)

All that could change this fall, and in what seems like a very unlikely place. South Dakota has some of the harshest and most draconian drug laws in the country. Possession is a misdemeanor; possession of any amount of concentrates, like a vape pen, is a felony; there’s even a law on the books outlawing being in the same room as an amount of cannabis and a Congressional delegation so opposed to any drug-policy reform they might be too extreme even for the DEA. Even CBD, a compound so common it barely attracts attention in most states, is illegal!

Perhaps because of this, enough South Dakotans are sick enough of the status quo to qualify not one but two legalization measures for the November ballot — one that would create a medical cannabis program, and another that would legalize recreational use for adults 21 and over.

Marijuana Moment was first to the news that the South Dakota Secretary of State on Monday ruled that enough of the 50,000 signatures from registered voters submitted by South Dakotans For Better Marijuana Laws, a statewide advocacy group aligned with the national Marijuana Policy Project and New Approach PAC, were valid. Just short of 34,000 signatures were required to qualify the measure for the ballot.

If approved in November, what will be known as Constitutional Measure A would allow adults 21 and over to possess up to an ounce of cannabis, legalize and tax regulated sales at 15%. It would also mandate that the state legislature legalize a hemp industry by 2022.

If that’s too much, voters will also decide on Initiated Measure 26, which would legalize medical cannabis for individuals with a “debilitating medical condition,” provided they have certification from a physician. With specific qualifying maladies like wasting syndrome, severe pain, nausea, seizures, and multiple sclerosis, it’s more limited than some medical-cannabis programs — though the state Department of Health could add conditions for which cannabis has been shown to provide relief, such as chronic pain, PTSD, or insomnia.

This is the first time in U.S. history when voters will be presented with both medical and recreational legalization measures on the same ballot and the first time when drug-policy reform opponents will be able to muddle the same message at the same time. With reform stalled in Congress, thanks mostly to a recalcitrant Senate, state initiatives are also the most likely victory of any kind drug-policy reform will enjoy in 2020.

“At this point, it appears increasingly unlikely that Congress will pass legislation this year to fix our nation’s broken federal marijuana laws,” said Matthew Schweich, deputy director of the Marijuana Policy Project, in comments to Marijuana Moment. “Therefore it is crucial that our movement win as many ballot initiative campaigns as possible this November and increase the pressure on Congress to take action. That is how we will ensure success at the federal level in 2021.”

At least for now, the odds are probably in opponents’ favor. A medical cannabis initiative in 2010 lost by a nearly two-to-one margin, and later efforts to decriminalize failed to make the ballot.

According to the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, South Dakota residents have until Feb. 5 to challenge the petition. A challenge can come from any citizen — including likely future foes in prominent positions such as Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican who has succored some of President Donald Trump’s worst tendencies and is so anti-cannabis that she vetoed a bill that would have allowed South Dakota farmers to enter the industrial hemp market (something that Trump legalized).

It’s also possible that prominent anti-legalization groups — such as the cynical and mostly unscrupulous coalition of pharmaceutical companies, anti-drug advocacy groups, and anti-legalization zealots that helped defeat a legalization measure in Arizona in 2016 — will mount a challenge, or perhaps astroturf an erstwhile “grassroots” anti-legalization campaign in the state. Because if South Dakota goes, it’s likely Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, and other red states with medical marijuana programs will legalize next.

TELL US, do you think South Dakota can get medical and adult-use cannabis legalization at the same time?

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