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South Dakota Governor’s Push To Block Voter-Approved Marijuana Legalization Slammed In Campaign Ad

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A top South Dakota lawmaker and Democratic gubernatorial candidate is taking incumbent Gov. Kristi Noem (R) to task over her opposition to marijuana legalization and the role her administration played in overturning a voter-approved cannabis initiative last year.

With another statewide legalization proposal set to appear on the ballot this November, House Minority Leader Jamie Smith (D) is making clear that he will work with, not against, voters to ensure the policy change is actually enacted this time. And the candidate recently released a TV ad drawing a contrast on the issue with Noem.

The spot features two people sitting at a bar watching the governor galavant on a horse and complaining about her “undermining our votes and corrupting state government.”

Smith, who ran unopposed for the Democratic gubernatorial primary, is then show on screen saying that South Dakotans are “getting worn out by the crazy stuff,” including Noem’s focus on “overturning our cannabis vote” and her backing of a separate ballot measure that would have made it harder to pass voter initiatives (but which was rejected by the electorate in June).

Noem’s administration funded a legal challenge against the 2020 legalization vote that ultimately ended with the state Supreme Court invalidating the cannabis initiative on procedural grounds.

In a series of social media posts, Smith has repeatedly called out Noem for standing opposite the will of the state’s voters on cannabis, pointing out, for example, that more people voted for the 2020 legalization ballot measure than for the governor in 2018.

A poll released in December 2021 found that most South Dakota voters approved of Noem’s job performance overall, but just 39 percent supported her handling of marijuana legalization, with 51 percent disapproving.

Noem released an ad ahead of the 2020 election, urging residents to vote against the legalization initiative that ultimately passed, 54 percent to 46 percent.


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More recently, however, the governor seems to be trying to associate herself with the implementation of a separate medical cannabis legalization initiative that voters also overwhelmingly approved in 2020, 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.

Following the court ruling that invalidated the earlier ballot box win, activists decided to take a two-track approach to the policy change in 2022, both working with legislators for a legislative reform while separately collecting signatures for the ballot initiative if lawmakers failed to act.

While they would have preferred lawmakers to enact the policy change, that did not materialize this session. The House rejected a Senate-passed legalization bill in March, effectively leaving it up to activists to get on the ballot again.

South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws (SDBML) did successfully turn in enough signatures to qualify again for 2022. The organization said it intends to work with lawmakers on that measure while continuing to push for the ballot measure.

Here’s what the campaign’s marijuana legalization ballot initiative would accomplish if approved by voters: 

The measure would allow adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to an ounce of cannabis. They could also grow up to three plants for personal use.

It also lays out civil penalties for violating provisions related to issues such as public consumption or growing more plants than permitted.

Employers would specifically be allowed to continue enforcing workplace drug policy prohibiting cannabis use by workers.

State and local governments could continue to ban marijuana activities made legal under the initiative in buildings “owned, leased, or occupied” by a governmental body.

The measure does not touch on regulatory policies concerning taxing cannabis sales, licensing or equity.

A Marijuana Interim Study Committee, headed by legislative leaders, was established last year to explore cannabis policy reform, and the panel ultimately recommended that the legislature take up legalization this session. The House-defeated legislation was one of the direct products of that recommendation.

With respect to the 2022 ballot, South Dakota is just one of several states where voters may decide on drug policy reform this November. 

In neighboring North Dakota, the secretary of state certified that activists collected enough signatures to place a marijuana legalization initiative before voters.

The Arkansas Supreme Court recently ordered the secretary of state’s office to certify a marijuana legalization initiative for the November ballot—but there’s a chance that the votes will not end up being counted, depending on the final outcome of a pending legal challenge.

Maryland elections officials have finalized the language for a marijuana legalization referendum that lawmakers placed on the November ballot, and have issued a formal summary of the reform proposal.

The Oklahoma attorney general revised the ballot title of a marijuana legalization initiative that activists hope will be certified to go before the state’s voters, making mostly technical changes that the campaign views as satisfactory.

Missouri’s secretary of state certified that activists turned in more than enough signatures to qualify a marijuana legalization initiative for the November ballot.

Colorado voters will have the chance to decide on a historic ballot initiative this November to legalize psychedelics and create licensed psilocybin “healing centers” where people can use the substance for therapeutic purposes.

Nebraska advocates recently submitted signatures for a pair of medical cannabis legalization initiatives. The campaign has faced several challenges along the way, including the loss of critical funding after a key donor passed away and a court battle of the state’s geographic requirements for ballot petitions.

An initiative to legalize marijuana will not appear on Ohio’s November ballot, the campaign behind the measure announced in May. But activists did reach a settlement with state officials in a legal challenge that will give them a chance to hit the ground running in 2023.

Michigan activists announced in June that they will no longer be pursuing a statewide psychedelics legalization ballot initiative for this year’s election and will instead focus on qualifying the measure to go before voters in 2024.

The campaign behind an effort to decriminalize drugs and expand treatment and recovery services in Washington State said in June that it has halted its push to qualify an initiative for November’s ballot.

While Wyoming activists said earlier this year that they made solid progress in collecting signatures for a pair of ballot initiatives to decriminalize marijuana possession and legalize medical cannabis, they didn’t get enough to make the 2022 ballot deadline and will be aiming for 2024 while simultaneously pushing the legislature to advance reform even sooner.

In March, California activists announced that they came up short on collecting enough signatures to qualify a measure to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for the state’s November ballot, though they aren’t giving up on a future election cycle bid.

Meanwhile, there are various local reforms that activists want to see voters decide on this November—including local marijuana decriminalization ordinances in Ohio, West Virginia and Texas.

Wisconsin voters in at least half a dozen cities and counties will be asked on November’s ballot whether they support legalizing, taxing and regulating cannabis in a manner similar to alcohol. Those advisory questions will be non-binding, however, and are intended to take the temperature of voters and send a message to lawmakers about where their constituents stand.

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Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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