South Dakota activists plan new law to legalize cannabis

Despite the failure of a recreational marijuana legalization measure that won majority voters support in last month’s midterm elections, activists in South Dakota are already planning a new bid to legalize adult-use cannabis in 2024.

The group South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws has reportedly taken the first official step to launch a new 2024 cannabis legalization bid by submitting a draft of the proposed ballot initiative to the state’s Legislative Research Council. The move comes less than two months after a measure known as Initiated Measure 27 to legalize recreational cannabis failed in the November election, receiving just over 47% of the ballots cast.

If passed, Measure 27 would have legalized the possession and use of cannabis and marijuana paraphernalia. The ballot would also have allowed adults 21 and older to possess or distribute up to one ounce of marijuana. Those residing in a jurisdiction without a licensed marijuana retailer would have been allowed to grow up to three cannabis plants in a safe location at home.

Activists who campaigned for this year’s unsuccessful election proposal believe the lower turnout typical of midterm elections compared to those that include a race for US president may have been a factor in Measure 27’s defeat.

“We believe the only reason it lost is because of the really low turnout … we’re committed to restoring the will of the people,” said Matthew Schweich, associate director of South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, which also runs the campaign to enact the year 2022 campaign to legalize cannabis.

The failure of Initiative 27 came despite a similar proposal that had won a solid majority of the vote just two years earlier when President Joseph Biden defeated his predecessor Donald Trump in the election. A 2020 ballot measure to legalize adult-use cannabis passed by 54% of the vote, but a legal challenge backed by Republican Gov. Kristi Noem resulted in the state Supreme Court invalidating the measure on procedural grounds.

Opponents of cannabis reform are also preparing for 2024

Opponents of cannabis reform believe the issue of legalizing recreational marijuana has already been decided in the elections, despite the invalidation of a successful election just two years ago. Republican state Rep. Fred Deutsch, who also serves as treasurer for the cannabis prohibition group Protecting South Dakota Kids, opposes another motion to legalize marijuana in the 2024 election.

“They brought it and they brought it and they brought it … they said we should respect the will of voters throughout the campaign,” Deutsch said. “Well apparently they will not respect the will of the voters… and they will bring it back again.”

Deutsch added that he intends to support a bill in the next legislative session that would ban similar initiatives from being put to the vote in back-to-back election cycles. Additionally, Protecting South Dakota Kids plans to create a nonprofit group of the same name and hire a lobbyist to work full-time in the state capital during the 2023 legislative session to counter efforts by cannabis reform advocates.

“Last year in Pierre, the pro-marijuana lobbyists overtook us five to one, six to one … I didn’t count them, but they swarmed the Capitol,” Deutsch said. “The marijuana industry invests a lot of money in hiring these people, and we’re hoping that we can pull them back a bit.”

Supporters of another attempt to legalize adult-use cannabis in South Dakota believe the measure’s success will likely depend on activists’ ability to raise the money to run a successful race in 2024, a factor in this year’s loss.

“The biggest hurdle is making sure you can run a well-funded campaign, and it’s too early to say whether we can or not,” Schweich said. “But we’re going to try to go through the process and build a network of people who can donate generously and make sure we have a well-funded campaign.”

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