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Legalization Advocates Bear Down for Difficult Race in South Dakota

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Two years ago, South Dakota was a symbol of the radical shift in attitudes toward marijuana use in America—a deep red, Trump-loving state that had defied conventional wisdom and embraced weed.

But next month, the Mount Rushmore State could deal a reality check to the legalization movement.

Voters there are set to decide on Initiated Measure 27, which would legalize personal possession of marijuana for adults aged 21 and older in the state. Recent polling suggests that the electorate is split.

A new South Dakota State University poll released this week found that 47% of voters in the state are opposed to legalizing recreational marijuana, while 45% support the idea. Eight percent said they aren’t sure.

Initiated Measure 27 represents something of a do-over for advocates, after an amendment to legalize recreational cannabis was approved by South Dakota voters in 2020 only to be struck down by the courts following a legal challenge mounted by the state’s Republican Gov. Kristi Noem.

Fifty-four percent of voters in the state approved Amendment A, but the state Supreme Court ultimately overturned it last November, ruling that it violated the South Dakota constitution’s “one subject” requirement for constitutional amendments.

Amendment A sought to change the state law on recreational marijuana, medical cannabis, and hemp. (Voters in South Dakota also approved a separate ballot proposal in 2020 that specifically legalized medical cannabis).

The state constitution “not only includes a single subject requirement but also directs proponents of a constitutional amendment to prepare an amendment so that the different subjects can be voted on separately,” Chief Justice Steven Jensen wrote in the majority opinion.

“This constitutional directive could not be expressed more clearly—each subject must be voted on separately—and simply severing certain provisions may or may not reflect the actual will of the voters,” Jensen wrote. “Therefore, we cannot accept Proponents’ suggestion that excising the medical marijuana and hemp provisions from Amendment A in favor of retaining the provisions regulating and legalizing recreational marijuana is an appropriate remedy. Amendment A is void in its entirety.”

Noem, a possible 2024 Republican presidential candidate, celebrated the Supreme Court’s ruling.

“South Dakota is a place where the rule of law and our Constitution matter, and that’s what today’s decision is about,” she said at the time. “We do things right—and how we do things matters just as much as what we are doing. We are still governed by the rule of law.”

Initiated Measure 27 qualified for the South Dakota ballot in May, after the campaign behind it, South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, turned in enough verified signatures to the secretary of state’s office.

The campaign has taken a populist approach, saying that the measure will “restore the will of the people by legalizing cannabis in South Dakota for a second time.”

But this week’s poll from SDSU wasn’t the first sign that 2022 could be much different than 2020.

A survey released in late August from the local news nonprofit South Dakota News Watch and the Chiesman Center for Democracy at the University of South Dakota found that 54% of voters in the state were against recreational cannabis legalization, while 44% said they are in favor.

With just a little over three weeks to go before Election Day, legalization advocates are now preparing to barnstorm South Dakota.

Matthew Schweich, the director for “South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws,” announced at a press conference on Wednesday that the campaign is kicking off an 18-city statewide tour this weekend. 



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