The governor of South Dakota isn’t ruling out a veto if the legislature delivers a marijuana legalization bill to her desk. And she said she’s skeptical about voter support for the reform—despite the fact that they already approved a legalization ballot measure in 2020 that was later overturned by a lawsuit supported by her administration.
Gov. Kristi Noem (R) was asked about the issue at a press briefing on Wednesday, shortly after the state Senate passed two different legalization bills, as well as measure to expunge prior cannabis convictions and create a tax structure for legal sales.
Voters already approved adult-use legalization at the ballot in 2020, but it was invalidated by the state Supreme Court following a single-subject legal challenge funded by the Noem administration. Activists are currently collecting signatures for a 2022 reform initiative, but they said they would be open to dropping that effort if the legislature delivers workable legalization legislation.
The governor didn’t give a clear answer when asked about whether she’d veto such a bill, except to say that “it’s hard to talk in hypotheticals,” and she’s “not in favor of recreational marijuana.”
“I still believe I haven’t seen anybody get smarter from smoking dope,” she said, adding that she’s “supported medical marijuana for years.” (In fact, she opposed the separate 2020 medical cannabis initiative that voters also approved that year.)
Matthew Schweich, director of South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws (SDBML), told Marijuana Moment that the “most important takeaway from Governor Noem’s press conference is what she didn’t say.”
“She did not say that she would veto an adult-use cannabis legalization bill,” he said. “That is an encouraging sign that she is starting to listen to her constituents on this issue.”
The governor also talked about people “using some loopholes to get medical cards” and said that she wants the state to “really understand what the consequences of that” before implementing an adult-use program.
While Noem seems to have recognized the popularity of medical marijuana and has worked to align herself with the state’s voter-approved program that’s being implemented, it stands to reason that a veto for adult-use legalization is on the table. In 2019, Noem even vetoed a bill to legalize industrial hemp because she viewed it as a possible first step toward recreational legalization.
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During Wednesday’s press briefing, the governor also gave a confusing response when asked about how activists would be willing to drop the broader legalization ballot initiative if legalization was enacted legislatively.
“I would say, based on that statement, they must have polling that tells them the people of South Dakota don’t necessarily support recreational marijuana,” she said. “I understand their offer, but it’s not something I would take them up on.”
But South Dakota voters already demonstrated that they support adult-use legalization when they approved the reform at the ballot in 2020.
“Governor Noem suggested that our campaign is willing to compromise because of negative polling. That is false,” Schweich said. “We remain very confident that we can win for a second time at the ballot box in November if necessary. The only marijuana poll that Governor Noem should be concerned with is the poll from December showing that less than 40 percent of South Dakota voters approve of her handling of cannabis policy.”
“We are willing to compromise because we want South Dakota to start realizing the benefits of legalization sooner rather than later,” he said. “We want to end unjust arrests, generate tax revenue, create jobs and redirect law enforcement resources to real crime. We want to restore the will of the people and do what’s best for South Dakota.”
Voter approval of adult-use legalization in 2020 is one of the most relevant factors behind why lawmakers have been advancing legalization legislation this session—to lay out a more specific regulatory framework for an adult-use market compared to what would be approved at the ballot in November.
Noem’s office also recently suggested that the activists behind that voter-approved initiative should pay the legal fees of the lawsuit that invalidated the will of voters—a proposal that the campaign called “ridiculous.”
A Marijuana Interim Study Committee, headed by legislative leaders, was established last year to explore the issue, and the panel ultimately recommended that the legislature take up legalization this session.
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.
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.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.