There has been a sort of ‘reefer madness” wafting through the state capitol since the start of session. With the bill submission deadline passed, there are a total of 46 bills relating to marijuana. In contrast, there are only three bills attempting to address our child care crisis. This contrast should give you a pretty good sense of what has grabbed the legislature’s attention.
The marijuana or cannabis legislation runs the spectrum with at least one bill calling for the legalization of recreational marijuana while other bills attempt to ban edibles or severely restrict the state’s new medical marijuana program. Many other bills are a result of the legislature’s summer study on medical and recreational marijuana. Additionally, there are at least five lobbyists in Pierre representing the marijuana industry, including a former legislator and two of the most experienced lobbyists in South Dakota. This type of lobbying for marijuana was an incomprehensible thought before the voters spoke loudly for legalization in the 2020 election.
Truthfully, the legislature has struggled with marijuana for over a decade. As other states began to legalize medical or recreational marijuana, South Dakota took a slower, more conservative approach. Under Governor Daugaard, legalization in any form was never a possibility, but he did shepherd through serious reforms to our criminal justice system designed to provide more rehabilitation and less punishment primarily to marijuana and drug users. For many years, lawmakers and law enforcement agents have attempted to roll back these changes, but so far, the legislature has kept them in tact.
At the same time, the legislature has always struggled with the crime of ingestion of a drug, which still gets charged. South Dakota is the only state to make ingestion of a drug, including marijuana recreationally, a felony. Former Senator Craig Kennedy attempted to change this punishment to a misdemeanor, akin to a persons’ first DUI punishment, during several legislative sessions, and the effort experienced a different result every session. In one year, the legislation would gain a lot of traction, even leading to a summer study, and then the next session, it was dead on arrival. This year, a similar bill failed in committee. This type of back-and-forth represents the legislature wavering between its more conservative tough on crime tradition to many legislators’ newly emerging libertarian worldview.
So far, the House has been killing marijuana legislation that seeks to significantly change or restrict the state’s new medical marijuana legislation. For instance, the effort to ban edibles died relatively quickly. Recreational marijuana legalization bills have not been heard yet, but my understanding is that the vote count could be close. But on this topic, it is hard to predict where the “madness” will take the legislature. Stay tuned.