Last week, South Dakota became the first state to place medical and adult-use cannabis legalization measures on the same ballot, a situation that has its challenges, as well as unique opportunities, according to Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) Deputy Director Matthew Schweich.
“It’s exciting that we’re able to make progress more quickly, and we did our research and we found that a majority of South Dakota voters support both medical marijuana and adult-use legalization,” Schweich told Cannabis Business Times. “We’ve done our homework and we’re confident that both can pass if we run an efficient campaign.”
South Dakota is currently one of three U.S. states that has no legal cannabis program on the books whatsoever.
The initiative, a constitutional amendment called Constitutional Amendment A, would legalize cannabis for adults 21 and older, establish a system for regulated sales and require the state legislature to enact a hemp cultivation law by 2022. The measure would also establish a 15% tax on cannabis sales and use a portion of the revenue to fund the state’s public school system.
Last month, New Approach South Dakota submitted over 30,000 signatures for a statutory initiative, called Initiated Measure 26, to enact a medical cannabis law for patients with debilitating medical conditions.
“It’s a pretty standard medical marijuana law that resembles a lot of what’s been passed in other states,” Schweich said. “It establishes a framework for allowing patients to get recommendations from their doctors and includes provisions that would address how dispensaries are regulated by the Department of Health.”
MPP has worked closely with both campaigns in the state and will continue to do so through the election. The organization helped oversee the signature drive and will contribute to the creation of a public education campaign specific to South Dakota in the months leading up to the election.
“Every state is different—different media markets, different levels of population density,” Schweich said. “We’ve got to take an approach that works for South Dakota.”
This approach will likely include connecting with voters through social media, local newspapers and radio, TV, print and digital advertising.
“We’ll be looking to pick up endorsements and do press conferences to point out the different benefits of legalization and medical marijuana,” Schweich said. “We’re just in the planning phase now, but we’ve worked on these campaigns before and we’ve been successful in getting our message out there to the public, and I expect we’ll be just as effective doing so in South Dakota.”
MPP has generally avoided allocating resources toward legislative lobbying in South Dakota, however, as it has proved challenging to get any meaningful bills passed through the legislature.
“Last year, the legislature passed a hemp law and the governor vetoed it,” Schweich said. “If they can’t get a hemp law passed, it’s very unlikely that they can get a medical marijuana or adult-use legalization law passed through that legislature, which is conservative and overwhelmingly controlled by the Republican party. So, really, to make progress in South Dakota, a ballot initiative is our only recourse.”
MPP’s message to voters is to pass both initiatives this fall, but the measures do not conflict with one another, so if one passes and the other does not, the successful initiative can still be implemented and take effect.
In addition, continued momentum toward legalization at the state level will continue to put pressure on the federal government’s prohibitionist policies, he added. “If we look ahead to federal reform, it’s important that we continue momentum as a movement, passing legalization in as many states as possible in 2020 through both ballot initiatives and legislation. It’s going to set us up for success in 2021 at the federal level. We’re hopeful that something can get passed this year at the federal level, but if that doesn’t happen, then the best way to ensure success in the next Congress is to pass as many state legalization laws as we can.”
Placing both issues in front of South Dakota voters on the same ballot does pose some challenges, however.
“We’re going to need to be thoughtful about how we communicate with voters,” Schweich said. “There’s going to be a segment of the electorate that’s 100% ready to approve medical that might have questions about adult-use legalization, and there are going to be voters who are confused about having both options on the ballot at the same time. We’re going to have to do a lot of public education to explain that the initiatives work together, but they’re not dependent on one another, explain the differences, and then make the case for both of these policies.”
Then, should one or both of the initiatives pass, the torch will be passed to the South Dakota Legislature to implement the will of the people.
“Hopefully, we will pass both initiatives with strong margins and those strong winning margins can serve as a mandate from the people, a message to the legislature that these policies should be implemented in a timely manner,” Schweich said. “It’s hard to say at this early juncture how much resistance there’s going to be.”
A constitutional initiative, like the adult-use measure, cannot be changed by the legislature unless it puts a question back on the ballot, he added, although lawmakers could ostensibly block implementation.
“We’re still evaluating how we would push back on that,” Schweich said, adding, “We’re in a very good position, establishing a constitutional amendment beyond the reach of any legislative bills.”
As a statutory measure, the medical cannabis initiative would become a state law like any other, and the legislature would have the ability to amend or even repeal the law, although Schweich does not expect much pushback since medical cannabis has overwhelming support among South Dakota voters.
“We’ll need to be engaged in 2021, assuming both initiatives pass,” he said. “We’re going to need to have a presence at the state capital in Pierre. We’re going to have to make sure that the medical law is not damaged through any bills, and we’ll have to make sure that they don’t block the implementation of adult-use legalization. It’s a question that remains to be answered."