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South Dakota Governor Floats Marijuana Decriminalization As Part Of Medical Cannabis Compromise

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The governor of South Dakota is looking to strike a deal with the legislature over plans to implement a medical marijuana program in the state, but advocates feel a reform proposal she’s floating doesn’t go far enough.

South Dakota voters approved separate ballot initiatives to legalize cannabis for medical and recreational use in November, despite Gov. Kristi Noem’s (R) opposition to the policy change. The adult-use measure was struck down by a judge last month following challenges over its constitutionality, with a state Supreme Court appeal pending, but the medical marijuana initiative is set to go into effect on July 1.

Noem tried to get the legislature to approve a bill to delay implementation 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.

Now she’s seeking a compromise, and one proposal out of her administration that’s being considered would 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.

An administration official told The Argus Leader that the governor hasn’t necessarily endorsed the measure her office is circulating, but it’s one of several pieces of legislation that they are exploring.

Under the bill, possession of up to an ounce of cannabis by an adult 21 or older would be considered a petty fine that would not carry the threat of jail time. Any additional offenses would be classified as a class 2 misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a maximum $500 fine. Underage possession would be a more serious class 1 misdemeanor.

That’s too severe and defies the will of voters who approved legalization, advocates with South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, the group behind the reform initiatives, say.

They’re circulating a counter proposal that would put the patient plant limit to six, extend the decriminalization policy to people under 21 as well and remove a provision that makes it so possession of any amount of marijuana can be used as grounds for a police search.

Sen. Mike Rohl (R) described the draft legislation from the governor’s administration as a “workable start,” but he agrees with advocates that the proposed penalties for underage possession should be reduced.

“I think that should be a class 2 offense—because that’s the same as alcohol,” he said. “These things are going on criminal records and staying with them for the rest of their life.”

Interestingly, while the administration is looking into numerous measures, Noem had said during a press conference earlier this month that “I don’t have any plans really to pursue further legislation” on the issue following the legislature’s rejection of the medical cannabis delay bill. “We’re kind of at the end of our time here,” she said.

The governor, who vetoed a hemp legalization bill in 2019, also said that she hasn’t decided whether to sign or veto a separate hemp measure that’s on her desk.

Meanwhile, the House majority leader said the legislature could establish a summer study committee on medical cannabis.

With respect to the recreational marijuana initiative that voters approved, a South Dakota state judge ruled that it is unconstitutional and cannot go forward. However, advocates are appealing that decision in the state Supreme Court.

The ruling represents is a victory for the law enforcement leaders who filed the challenge, at least for now. The lawsuit is also being supported by the governor, who has said that voters made “the wrong choice” by legalizing marijuana.

Under the medical cannabis initiative as approved by voters, patients suffering from debilitating conditions will be allowed to possess and purchase up to three ounces of marijuana from a licensed dispensary. The question that remains now is whether lawmakers and Noem will be able to agree on any plan to change the provisions of the measure before it takes effect.

Read the governor’s medical cannabis and decriminalization bill below, with proposed revisions from advocates: 

Advocate redline of SD gove… by Marijuana Moment

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Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Sacramento-based senior editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

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