South Dakota Voters Likely to Approve Cannabis Legalization—Again

May 5, 2022

On May 3, activists in South Dakota submitted petitions to put adult-use cannabis legalization on the ballot in November 2022.

In order to qualify to be on the ballot, the measure required 16,961 signatures from registered voters in the state. The Secretary of State’s Office will now review the signatures to determine if the measure will come before South Dakotans for a vote this winter. Advocates expect a decision in a couple weeks—and are confident they have plenty of valid signatures to qualify.

“We are very proud to submit these petitions, and we are extremely thankful to the voters who added their signatures and to the volunteers who helped us finish this petition drive,” Matthew Schweich, the campaign director for South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, said in a press statement. “This was a statewide grassroots effort that involved thousands of South Dakotans. We will await the official decision from the Secretary of State’s Office, but based on our rigorous internal review of the petitions, we fully expect to qualify for the ballot this November.”

That’s a fair assumption when you consider that South Dakota’s voters already approved an initiative that legalized both medical cannabis and adult-use cannabis, in 2020. It won 54 percent support. But two law enforcement officers, funded with taxpayer dollars allocated by Governor Kristi Noem (R), then levied a lawsuit against the decision. High rates of racially disproportionate marijuana arrests meanwhile continued in the state.

We think that was a deeply flawed ruling, so we launched a new initiative campaign for 2022 to restore the will of the people.

The South Dakota Supreme Court ultimately determined in November 2021, on procedural grounds, that the initiative violated the state constitution’s single subject rule. The courts deemed its inclusion of measures concerning adult-use legalization, medical marijuana and hemp to be too wide in scope to satisfy the electoral standard. As Schweich explains it, the original initiative had included a line or two about enacting a medical law in the future, and that triggered the Supreme Court’s decision.

We think that was a deeply flawed ruling, so we launched a new initiative campaign for 2022 to restore the will of the people,” Schweich told Filter.

Following the reversal, activists helped draft Senate-sponsored legislation—which the House rejected in March—and pursued collecting signatures for a new ballot initiative. If passed, the measure would permit people 21 and over to purchase and possess up to an ounce of cannabis and keep up to three plants for personal use. It also outlines civil penalties for public consumption and growing more than three plants, and allows employers to enforce cannabis-free workplaces. Local and state governments can bar consumption in their own buildings as well.

Schweich explained that they could have run a more comprehensive initiative—one that included licensing, regulation and taxation, as well as social equity provisions—but when they submitted it, they were not yet aware how the Supreme Court judges would specifically rule in the lawsuit or what arguments they would rely on, so they played it safe.

“We filed initiatives for 2022 earlier in 2021 hoping that we wouldn’t need them, hoping that we would win the lawsuit,” Schweich said. “But at the very least we thought that if we lost the lawsuit, the ruling would guide us on what initiative we could run in 2022. They delayed it so long, though, that it was well past the point where we could make a decision. Not only did they appeal what voters approved in 2020, they interfered with the next election.”

It’s part of a nationwide effort to attack the initiative process.

All of this has led the activists to turn their attention to the broader issue of fairness in getting ballot initiatives enacted. Schweich said that his group will now focus on opposing Amendment C, a soon-to-be ballot question that would demand 60 percent of voters—instead of a simple majority—to approve a ballot initiative if it increases taxes or fees, or requires the state to appropriate $10 million or more in the first five fiscal years. It’s on the ballot for June. 

It’s part of a nationwide effort to attack the initiative process, Schweich told Filter. Some of these efforts are about raising the threshold, and others are about making it harder to get onto the ballot. This is a bigger trend, unfortunately, across the country.



Photograph Steve Shook via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

Alex Norcia

Alex was formerly Filter’s news editor. He previously worked as a reporter and copy editor at VICE, and has been published in the New York Times Magazine, the Columbia Journalism Review, the Los Angeles Times and the New Republic, among other outlets. He was also previously a freelance editorial consultant for the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World; The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, has received grants from the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. He is currently based in Los Angeles.

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