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Legalization Advocates Bear Down for Difficult Race in South Dakota

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.

Next month, however, Mount Rushmore State might be an obstacle to legalization.

The state’s voters are expected to vote on Initiated measure 27, which would allow personal marijuana possession for those aged 21 or older. Recent polling shows that there is a split in the electorate.

According to a new South Dakota State University survey, 47% oppose legalization of recreational marijuana. Only 45% are in favor. 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 alter the state laws on medical marijuana and recreational cannabis. South Dakota voters also approved an additional ballot proposition in 2020, which specifically legalized medical marijuana.

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.

The survey, which was conducted in August by South Dakota News Watch and the Chiesman Center for Democracy at the University of South Dakota revealed that 54% of South Dakotans were against legalizing recreational cannabis. Only 44% of respondents said that they support it.

Legalization supporters are already preparing for a barnstorming in South Dakota with just three weeks before Election Day.

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.