South Dakota lawmakers on Tuesday advanced legislation to legalize marijuana for adult use and replace the state’s newly established medical cannabis program.
In an 8-2 vote, a subcommittee tasked with exploring adult-use legalization recommended approving a draft bill that’s being carried by Chairman Hugh Bartels (R).
This comes as the state Supreme Court continues contemplate a review of the constitutionality of an earlier cannabis legalization initiative that voters approved in 2020 but which was later challenged with a lawsuit funded by the administration of Gov. Kristi Noem (R).
At the same time, activists have launched a signature gathering drive to put a marijuana legalization initiative on the state’s 2022 ballot after receiving clearance from the secretary of state’s office. South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws (SDBML) says it will be undeterred by legislative actions to simply recommend putting an alternative legalization proposal before the legislature next year and will proceed with plans to turn in petitions next month to put the cannabis issue back before voters next year.
A recommendation is effectively what the Adult-Use Marijuana Study Subcommittee made on Tuesday, taking an initial, positive vote on Bartels’s bill. It will now move on to the full Marijuana Interim Study Committee before potentially being considered by the legislature’s Executive Board.
After that point, the measure would be introduced for formal action in the 2022 session.
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As drafted, the legislation would allow adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to an ounce of cannabis. The state Department of Revenue would be responsible for regulating the market and issuing marijuana business licenses.
Unlike the legalization initiatives that South Dakota voters approved last year, the lawmaker’s bill would not provide a home grow option for adult consumers. Marijuana cultivation for commercial sales could only be grown indoors, too.
“It’s about as close as we’re going to get to get something passed out of the committee,” Bartels told the Argus Leader ahead of Tuesday’s vote.
He said in a separate interview with KELO that “we picked this [legislative] path to go down” in the event that the 2020 initiative was struck down in court. “I would imagine that if the court does rule that Amendment A stands, this bill will never be introduced.”
Advocates, meanwhile, aren’t holding their breath for the court or for lawmakers. They intend to move ahead with a 2022 ballot measure to legalize recreational cannabis as the committee proceeds and as the justice continue their review of the earlier voter-approved initiative.
SDBML Director Matt Schweich told the Leader that the campaign hopes “we can work with” lawmakers on their proposal, but “there is no scenario in which we stop collecting signatures based on committee recommendations.”
“At this time, we are completely focused on our petition signature drive so that we can maintain the option of going back to the ballot next year if necessary,” Schweich told Marijuana Moment. “Our goal is to finish the drive in early November. After that, we will turn our focus to the upcoming legislative session. We remain open to working with legislators to enact laws that align with the will of the people. Ideally, a 2022 ballot initiative is unnecessary. But right now, we need to keep that option open.”
There’s limited time to mobilize a ballot campaign to qualify for 2022, however. The campaign had initially put forward four proposed legalization initiatives in the event of a negative ruling by the court, but they’ve decided to pursue just one.
SDBML will have until this November 8 to collect at least 16,961 valid signatures from registered voters to qualify the statutory measure for next November’s ballot. The campaign is seeking volunteers to boost the petitioning process.
While advocates remain frustrated over a February lower court ruling that invalidated last year’s adult-use legalization initiative—and the ongoing delay in the Supreme Court’s decision on upholding or overturning that decision—they’ve been encouraged that the separate medical cannabis measure that voters approved approved took effect in July.
However, that would be effectively replaced under the “compromise” bill that the subcommittee approved on Tuesday. There would be no need for medical clearance to obtain marijuana for those 21 and older, the sponsor says. However, the legislation would make it so the state Department of Health could continue to issue recommendations for medical cannabis for those under 21.
Rep. Mark Willadsen (R) said he thinks “those that want to get marijuana for medical purposes that are over the age of 21 are going to be able to do that more easily with this program than they do with the medical marijuana program that we have in force now.”
“I view this as a step in the right direction for South Dakota—for simplicity in government, for not having two bureaucracies when we can make one do the work of those two,” he said.
The subcommittee also agreed to place tax provisions related to marijuana sales in a separate bill because keeping it intact would have required a two-thirds majority of legislators to enact legalization itself.
The subcommittee also put tax provisions into a separate bill. Next steps are approvals from Legislature's full marijuana committee and Legislature's Executive Board. If both give green lights, the bill would be introduced in the 2022 legislative session come January. @keloland
— KELO Bob Mercer (@pierremercer) October 19, 2021
The governor, for her part, is still “not supportive of legalizing recreational marijuana,” a spokesperson told KELO on Tuesday.
Read the text of the marijuana legalization bill that the subcommittee considered—prior to making amendments and approving it—below:
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.