South Dakota Lawmakers Advance Legalization Bill

Voters in South Dakota may have another crack at legalizing cannabis this year—unless lawmakers there do it first.
South Dakota
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A bill to legalize recreational pot for adults narrowly advanced in the South Dakota legislature last week, winning approval in the senate by just a single vote. The legislation would bring some redemption to advocates who have been in a tug-of-war battle with the state for the last two years to end prohibition and finally get legal sales in the state. 

In 2020, 54 percent of South Dakota voters approved Amendment A, which would have legalized recreational marijuana, in addition to hemp and medicinal cannabis, within the state. (That same year, an even larger majority of voters passed a separate ballot measure that legalized only medical marijuana.)

But it was doomed from that moment forward, with Republican Governor Kristi Noem mounting a legal challenge against the amendment.

In February of last year, a circuit court judge in South Dakota ruled in Noem’s favor, saying that Amendment A violated the state’s constitution and could not become law.  

Months later, on the day before Thanksgiving, the state’s Supreme Court upheld that lower court ruling on the grounds that the amendment ran afoul of the constitution’s “one subject” requirement.

Undeterred, advocates said in the fall that they intended to put another legalization proposal on the 2022 ballot, which was an impetus for the GOP-controlled state Senate to forge ahead with its own measure. 

“This is your opportunity to take control of the issue,” said one of the bill’s sponsors, Republican state Senator David Wheeler, as quoted by the Associated Press. “This bill is your opportunity to do what the people said they wanted in Amendment A.”

“The train on marijuana is only moving in one direction nationwide,” he added. “It is better for us to get ahead of it.”

The bill that passed the state Senate on Wednesday would allow adults age 21 and older to have up to an ounce of marijuana in their possession. Additionally on Wednesday, legislators in the chamber passed a number of bills “to set up retail licenses in the same way it licenses liquor establishments as well as automatically remove from background check records misdemeanors and petty offenses for pot ingestion or possession that are more than five years old,” according to the Associated Press.

Despite its passage in the state Senate, the bill still faces a long, difficult road to ultimate approval. 

Leaders in the state House of Representatives, where Republicans also have a big majority, have indicated that the legislation will face stiff opposition in their chamber.

“That hasn’t been very favorable in the House,” state House Majority Leader Kent Peterson said on Thursday, as quoted by local television station KELO. “I would assume that’s going to have a decently tough path going forward.”

And then there’s Noem, a potential 2024 GOP presidential candidate who has long been vocal in her opposition to recreational pot legalization. 

At a press conference on Wednesday, the governor didn’t say if she would veto the bill should it land on her desk, but reiterated that she is against recreational pot use.

“I haven’t seen anybody get smarter from smoking dope,” Noem said, as quoted by Dakota News Now.

A poll late last year found that a little more than half of South Dakota voters disapprove of Noem’s handling of cannabis legalization.

  1. The state Senate had narrowly approved the legalization bill, SB 3, last week. But the House State Affairs Committee defeated it by voting 8-3 to move the legislation to the 41st day of the session—one day after the session ends, thereby preventing its consideration.

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