Legal Fight Ignites Over Recreational Marijuana in South Dakota

It’s shades of Maine all over again, but this time in South Dakota. The current governor of the state does not approve of an amendment passed by voters and has successfully convinced a court to throw out a voter-approved amendment allowing recreational marijuana in South Dakota.

Gov. Kristi Noem’s administration challenged the voter-approved amendment in court, claiming that it did not focus on a single issue. The same argument was used in Nebraska to keep legalization off the November 2020 ballot (although new efforts toward legalization have started there).

Circuit Judge Christina Klinger ruled in favor of the governor’s lawsuit, finding that the ballot issue had “far-reaching effects on the basic nature of South Dakota’s governmental system,” according to the Associated Press. Noem appointed Klinger as circuit judge in 2019.

“Today’s decision protects and safeguards our constitution,” Noem, a Republican, said in a statement. “I’m confident that the South Dakota Supreme Court, if asked to weigh in as well, will come to the same conclusion.”

That’s likely where the issue is heading, as those who spearheaded the effort to get legalization on the ballot seem prepared to appeal the court’s decision.

Voters Overwhelmingly Approved the Measure

In the November 2020 election, a ballot measure called Amendment A asked voters to approve the creation of legal adult-use marijuana sales in South Dakota. About 54% of voters in the state approved the measure.

Noem opposed legalization. Highway Patrol Superintendent Col. Rick Miller and Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom eventually sued to block putting Amendment A into action. According to the AP, Miller effectively acted on behalf of Noem.

Noem is not the first Republican governor to block putting voter-approved marijuana legalization into effect. After Maine voters approved adult-use sales in their state in 2016, then Gov. Paul LePage vetoed a plan to put the system into place. This and other tactics worked to delay cannabis sales in the state for years.

South Dakota now looks to suffer the same fate, even as other states that approved legalization in 2020 move forward, including Arizona, Montana and New Jersey. The South Dakota law would have started by making possession of small amounts of cannabis legal in July, but that will not happen unless the law is overturned.

Why the Judge Rejected the Amendment

The judge effectively put marijuana in South Dakota on hold with her ruling. In it, she wrote that the amendment would have made changes in how the state handles business licensing, taxation and hemp cultivation.

She also said the amendment gave the Department of Revenue too much power, allowing it to overstep the authority of the executive and legislative branches of government.

Attorneys who argued for upholding the will of the voters said the lawsuit is nothing more than an attempt to overturn the results of a fair election. Look for them to soon make that same argument in court.

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