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South Dakota Voters Disapprove Of Governor’s Handling Of Marijuana Legalization, Poll Finds

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South Dakota voters are giving Gov. Kristi Noem (R) good marks on her job performance—except when it comes to marijuana policy and the way in which her administration has sought to undermine the will of the electorate which approved a legalization ballot measure last year.

A statewide poll released on Tuesday showed that an average of 61 percent of voters strongly or somewhat approve of Noem’s job performance across five categories in her first term. But just 39 percent said they approve of her handling of marijuana legalization, with 51 percent disapproving.

One-third of respondents said that they strongly disapprove of the governor when it comes to cannabis, while 18 percent said they somewhat disapprove.

Twenty-eight percent of Republicans, 38 percent of Democrats and 39 percent of independents said they strongly disapproved of Noem’s handling of the issue. Another 16 percent of GOP voters, 23 percent of Democrats and 17 percent of independents somewhat disapprove of the governor’s actions on cannabis.

While Noem—who is up for reelection next year—has seemingly recognized the popularity of marijuana reform in recent months and has attempted to tie herself to the rollout of a voter-approved medical cannabis program, it appears that voters haven’t forgotten how she adamantly opposed a separate adult-use legalization initiative that residents also passed last November.

In fact, it was a lawsuit funded by her administration that led to a court ruling voiding the recreational marijuana law—a decision upheld by the state Supreme Court last month when justices affirmed that the measure is unconstitutional because it violated a single subject rule for ballot initiatives.

“The people did weigh in on [cannabis reform], and it’s very easy to see what she is doing as far as working to counter what 53 percent of the voters said they wanted in regard to recreational marijuana,” David Wiltse, a political science professor at South Dakota State University, said of the survey results.

The poll—which was sponsored by South Dakota News Watch and the Chiesman Center for Democracy at the University of South Dakota—involved interviews with 500 registered voters from October 20-23 and has a +/- 4.5 percentage point margin of error.

“Of the five topics on which Noem was rated in the poll, she fared by far the worst in regard to marijuana,” South Dakota News Watch said in its analysis.

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.

“The fact is, I’ve never met someone who got smarter from smoking pot,” the governor said in the ad. “It’s not good for our kids. And it’s not going to improve our communities.”

Noem also drew the ire of advocates after she vetoed a hemp legalization bill in 2019. But after outlining a series of policy requests, she approved amended legislation to legalize the crop and CBD oil last year.

Lately, however, the governor seems committed to associating herself with the implementation of a medical cannabis legalization initiative that voters 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 earlier this 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 South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws (SDBML) is now taking a two-track approach to enacting 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 last month by the legislature’s Executive Board, which is led by the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore.

Sen. Bryan Breitling (R) said the legislature will see two adult-use marijuana legalization bills and 23 proposals related to the state’s medical cannabis program during next year’s session. Any marijuana legislation that lawmakers pass, however, will end up on Noem’s desk.

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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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