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South Dakota Governor Wants Marijuana Activists To Pay Legal Bill For Her Lawsuit That Blocked Legalization

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The governor of South Dakota wants marijuana activists behind a 2020 legalization initiative that her administration overturned with a court challenge to pay the legal fees, rather than have taxpayers foot the bill for her fight to invalidate the voter-approved measure.

After South Dakota voters passed the ballot proposal to legalize cannabis for adult use in the state, Gov. Kristi Noem’s (R) administration funded a lawsuit that led to a court ruling voiding the law—a decision upheld by the state Supreme Court last year when justices affirmed that the measure is unconstitutional because it violated a single subject rule for ballot initiatives.

Now a spokesperson for Noem’s office says that advocates with South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws (SDBML) should cover the legal costs, arguing that they were forewarned that the reform proposal could face a legal challenge.

Ian Fury, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, told The Argus Leader that the “proponents of Amendment A submitted an unconstitutional amendment and should reimburse South Dakota taxpayers for the costs associated with their drafting errors.”

SDBML, which remains committed to enacting the marijuana policy change either legislatively or with another ballot initiative, called it a “ridiculous” request.

“South Dakota cannabis reform advocates have no obligation to pay for Governor Noem’s political crusade to overturn the will of the people,” Matthew Schweich, campaign director of SDBML, said. “Driven by her desire to deprive South Dakotans of personal freedom on cannabis, Governor Noem went out of her way to create an unnecessary legal battle over Amendment A and used taxpayer money to do it.”

Taxpayers are currently on the hook for at least $142,000 in legal fees that the administration paid, according to The Argus Leader.

While a recent poll found that most South Dakota voters approve of Noem’s job performance overall, just 39 percent approve of her handling of marijuana legalization, with 51 percent disapproving. The governor is up for reelection this year.

Noem has consistently faced criticism from advocates and stakeholders over her early opposition to cannabis reform.

She released an ad ahead of last year’s election urging residents to vote against the legalization initiative that ultimately passed, 54-46 percent.

Lately, however, the governor seems committed to associating herself with the implementation of a separate medical cannabis legalization initiative that voters also overwhelmingly approved last year, despite having opposed the proposal in the run-up to the election.

After regulators approved rules for the medical marijuana program in September, Noem said her administration “is fully on board to make certain South Dakota continues to implement the most responsible, patient-focused medical cannabis program in the country.”

Noem tried to get the legislature to approve a bill to delay implementation of the medical cannabis program 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.

In response, her office started exploring a compromise last year, with one proposal that came out of her administration to 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.

Advocates weren’t enthused with the proposal, and SDBML is now taking a two-track approach to enacting broader legalization.

In the legislature, a draft cannabis legalization bill has been formally recommended by a leadership panel for the upcoming session. SDBML intends to work with lawmakers on that measure while continuing to collect signatures for a separate 2022 ballot initiative.

A Marijuana Interim Study Committee recently made the formal recommendation for the legislature to take up legalization following a series of hearings. The recommendation was agreed to late last year by the legislature’s Executive Board, which is led by the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore.

That said, Senate leader Lee Schoenbeck (R) said this week that it’s “highly unlikely that the legislature passes recreational marijuana.”

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Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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