South Dakota Activists Counting On Large Turnout

Cannabis nugs South Dakota
Photo: Shutterstock

South Dakota – For the fourth time since 2006, South Dakotans will be asked to vote to legalize a form of marijuana.

South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws collected 25,023 signatures, well in excess of the required 16,961, to place recreational marijuana on the Nov. 8 ballot. It is Initiated Measure 27, and needs just a simple majority to become law.

If approved, people 21 and older would be allowed to have up to 1 ounce of marijuana for personal use and to share with other adults, and they could grow it, too.

Matthew Schweich, campaign director for South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, said in a statement that the cannabis proponents are ready for the election.

“We are confident that we can achieve victory for the second consecutive election, pass Initiated Measure 27 by a strong margin, and restore the will of the people,” Schweich said.

That “will of the people” is a reference to the 2020 election, when voters approved Constitutional Amendment A, legalizing recreational weed, by a vote of 54.2 percent to 45.8 percent. A companion ballot measure, Initiated Measure 26, focused on medical marijuana, was approved 69.9 percent to 31.1 percent.

South Dakota became the first state to approve medical and recreational marijuana in the same election. Both were to take effect on July 1, 2021.

But Gov. Kristi Noem asked Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom and Superintendent of the South Dakota Highway Patrol Colonel Rick Miller to file complaints in circuit court, alleging that Amendment A does not follow constitutional guidelines.

In early 2021, a circuit court judge appointed by Noem placed recreational marijuana on hold, ruling that Amendment A violated the state’s single-subject rule on constitutional amendments.

Sixth Circuit Judge Christina Klinger said the 2020 ballot measure violated the rule, passed by voters in 2018, about dealing with more than a single subject.

“Allocating revenue from an excise tax of marijuana sales, forbidding differing professions from disciplining their members, and including a provision compelling the legislature to pass hemp, which is different than marijuana, are not part of the ‘single scheme’ of legalizing marijuana,” Klinger ruled.

The South Dakota Supreme Court agreed, rejecting the amendment. That sent the pro-cannabis forces back to work to try to pass a measure approving recreational marijuana again.

They also worked with legislators to try to legalize it without a vote, but despite some progress, that was derailed. Then, they faced another challenge in Amendment C, which would have required ballot questions to receive 60% for passage if the ballot question creates a tax or fee or requires the state to appropriate $10 million or more in any of the first five fiscal years after enactment.

The proposed amendment, backed by Republican legislative leaders, targeted the Medicaid expansion proposal, but also may have impacted the marijuana question, so South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws joined forces with the Medicaid expansion group to fight it.

Complicating the matter was the fact that the question was placed on the June primary ballot, when turnout is traditionally much lighter than in general elections. But voters trounced the proposed amendment, shooting it down 67.43 percent to 32.57 percent.

That put the pot proponents back to work to register voters, raise money and gather support. Although they won approval for both medical and recreational weed in 2020, they have tasted defeat before.

In 2006, South Dakota voters rejected medical marijuana in a close vote, 52.3 percent to 47.7 percent. Another attempt in 2010 lost resoundingly, 63.31 percent to 36.69 percent.

An effort to decriminalize marijuana in 2016 foundered when supporters could not gather enough signatures. In 2018, a ballot question to legalize medical marijuana turned in enough signatures to make the ballot, but the Secretary of State’s Office found numerous invalid signatures and it failed to qualify.

In 2020, with the national organization Marijuana Policy Project joining New Approach South Dakota, a statewide group made up primarily of volunteers, both recreational and medical marijuana qualified for the ballot. Both passed, but after a pair of court defeats, recreational weed is back on the ballot.

Schweich said this latest campaign has high hopes.

“It’s going well,” he said. “We believe that we have the support of South Dakota voters. That being said, we are taking nothing for granted.”

The proponents toured the state to build support for Measure 27 and raise awareness of the voter registration deadline. They visited 18 cities and towns across South Dakota from Oct. 15-24 to register voters, meet supporters, train volunteers, educate the public, and distribute lawn signs.

The road trip started in Brookings and traveled through Watertown, Sisseton, Aberdeen, Huron, Mitchell, Vermillion, Yankton, Wagner, Oacoma, Mission, Pierre, Mobridge, Eagle Butte, Spearfish, Belle Fourche, Rapid City before ending in Pine Ridge on Monday, Oct. 24, the final day South Dakotans could register to vote.

Marijuana is still being obtained and smoked in the state, as it has been for decades. It wasn’t outlawed until 1931, part of a “Reefer Madness” campaign that swept across the country, leading to 29 states to ban marijuana, which had been grown and used for centuries.

In 1977, as part of a wave of marijuana decriminalization, marijuana was briefly dropped to that status in South Dakota, but it was quickly reversed. While thousands continue to consume it, the battle to legalize it has dragged on for years.

The Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe opened a cannabis growing facility in 2015, but shut it down and burned the weed under pressure from the state and federal governments.

The tribe reopened a dispensary in 2021 and has reported doing a brisk business. People with approval to use medical marijuana can obtain it there or from out-of-state sources.

Schweich wants to see weed available to any adult who wants it, for either medicinal or personal reasons. He said support for their effort is growing.

“Fundraising has improved over the past month and most of our donations are coming from South Dakota donors,” Schweich said. “We’ve had strong volunteer support going back to the start of the signature drive last year and as we enter the closing stages, more and more people are offering to help us. Thankfully, we have the resources to run TV and radio ads across South Dakota as we make our case for Measure 27.”

In a campaign finance report filed on Monday, Oct. 24, South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws reported raising $436,000, primarily from cannabis companies.

GLP SD LLC of Rapid City donated $200,000. Genesis Farms of Sioux Falls and Besame Wellness of Gladstone, Mo., each contributed $110,000. Five Mile High of Presho donated $5,000, while 605 Capital LLC of Sioux Falls and Blau Ernte LLC of Hartford both donated $2,500.

Dakota Natural Growers, Inc of Vermilion, GGG Dispensary, LLC of Aberdeen and The Flower Shop LLC of Sioux Falls each contributed $2,000.

Genesis Farms also provided office space worth $45,000. The Marijuana Policy Project of Washington, D.C., which employs Schweich, paid his salary, totaling $57,715.24.

Schweich said 75 percent of those donations are from South Dakota firms. He also pointed to $21,192.67 in itemized donations, with 95.5 percent of that raised from South Dakota residents, Schweich said.

John Herting of Watertown was the leading individual donor, giving $10,625.67. Peter Dikun of Dell Rapids contributed $2,300 and Troy Erickson of Rapid City gave $1,000.

The campaign also received $10,055.11 in unitemized donations of $100 or less, and Schweich said 94 percent of that came from South Dakotans.

The campaign reported spending $262,135,34, primarily on advertising. It reported spending $209,247.29 on ads, and had $230,512.44 cash on hand as of Oct. 19.

Unlike the 2020 campaign, the pro-legalization forces are facing opposition from a variety of sources, including law enforcement officials. All but one sheriff in the state has come out against the ballot measure.

Schweich said that is wrong, in his view.

“I believe that the South Dakota Legislature should pass a bill next year to prohibit law enforcement officers and elected law enforcement officials from engaging in political campaigning — either in candidate races or on ballot initiatives — while in uniform,” he said.

Schweich has avoided linking the campaign to either political party, saying he welcomes support from people of all political beliefs. But Noem has been an opponent, although she finally said she supports medical marijuana, and will respect voters’ wishes if they approve recreational pot once again.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jamie Smith says he thinks it will win, and said taxing marijuana could help the state drop taxes on groceries.

“I’m encouraged by his optimism, which I share,” Schweich said.

But he said the last two few days will require a dedicated effort to assemble enough support and get voters to the polls.

“We need to work hard to ensure strong turnout from our supporters, which is critical in a midterm election,” Schweich said. “The greatest risk to Measure 27 is complacency among its supporters.”