South Dakota voters could legalize cannabis for medical and adult use at the same time in November, a first in the US.
Voters will have a chance to decide on Amendment A and Measure 26 at the ballot box. Amendment A is a constitutional amendment that would legalize cannabis for adult use and require the state legislature to craft regulations for medical cannabis and hemp by April 1, 2022. Measure 26 would establish a medical cannabis program. (Read Cannabis Wire’s previous coverage of South Dakota’s efforts.)
Supporters of the initiatives held a news conference Wednesday to discuss the economic and criminal justice implications of the legalization push, among other topics. The South Dakota Legislative Research Council has estimated that adult use revenues could surpass $10 million in fiscal year 2022, and generate roughly $30 million by fiscal year 2024.
Amendment A and Measure 26 are supported by both the Marijuana Policy Project, the organization behind many of the country’s medical and adult use legalization efforts, and the New Approach PAC.
As Brendan Johnson, former US Attorney for South Dakota pointed out during the conversation, voter turnout is expected to be high in November because it’s a presidential election year. For this reason, cannabis advocates have targeted presidential elections, followed by midterm elections, for ballot initiatives. For example, in 2016, voters in nine states saw medical or adult use cannabis legalization on their ballots, eight of which were successful.
Given the COVID-19 outbreak and uncertainty around what the fall will look like when it comes to voting, Melissa Mentele, executive director for New Approach South Dakota, said they will be looking to run a “really heavy” absentee ballot campaign.
“With COVID and the protest and basically the unrest in the world right now,” Mentele said, “November is a long way off. And we do have to have a plan on being able to vote. So we are going to encourage people to return those absentee ballot applications and to vote absentee.”
Johnson emphasized that thoughts on cannabis law reform are evolving at a fast rate, and said that cannabis law reform has emerged as a bipartisan issue, with libertarians and conservatives increasingly seeing legalization as a way for governments to raise revenue and to cut the costs of incarceration, and to reduce “overcriminalization of our youth.”
“I think what we’re going to see in South Dakota on this issue is really a coalition of both Democrats and Republicans coming together and [saying] prohibition does not work. It has not worked in the past. And it’s time, for the interest of our economy as well as the next generation, to get this right,” Johnson said.
Drey Samuelson, political director of South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, referenced the potentially “huge first mover advantage” that South Dakota could have, because no neighboring states have yet legalized cannabis for adult use. Samuelson also said that it’s possible that the state’s cannabis industry could “export” to neighboring states. When Cannabis Wire asked for clarification, given that exports across state lines remain legal, Samuelson said federal law would have to change first.
Will Gov. Kristi Noem offer her support? Advocates aren’t optimistic, especially after Noem’s early opposition to hemp.
Last year, Noem vetoed a bill to legalize hemp, citing concerns around public safety, law enforcement, and funding, and later said in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal in September that she would do so again if a hemp bill comes up in 2020.
“Nothing would make me happier than finding a way to introduce a new cash crop into South Dakota’s agricultural economy,” she wrote in the piece, but “industrial hemp isn’t that crop.”
Noem then said in her State of the State address in January that “in the interest of being proactive,” she’d be “willing to sign legislation” on hemp, provided that her concerns about law enforcement, funding, and public safety are met.
“I think we can all agree that we do not want to stress our already thin law enforcement resources. I also think we’re all in agreement that we don’t want to negatively impact our drug fighting efforts across the state,” Noem said during her State of the State address. “And given that so many of our families are being ripped apart by substance abuse, I know none of us wants to take a step backwards as we address those issues. Our primary obligation is to protect the health and the welfare of our citizens.”
Noem appears to have been nudged toward supporting hemp, in part, because of hemp rulemaking progress at the federal level, and because a South Dakota tribe has been given production approval by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“And, other states’ actions mean that we need to address hemp transportation through our state,” Noem added.
Noem signed House Bill 1008 into law in March, legalizing industrial hemp.