Both medical and adult-use cannabis legalization on South Dakota ballot for November

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(This story has been updated to reflect that Ohio had both medical and adult-use legalization on its 2015 ballot.)

South Dakota could become the first state in the nation to simultaneously legalize medical and adult-use marijuana in November.

South Dakota also is the lone state in the country’s heartland where cannabis is on the ballot now that a Nebraska medical cannabis initiative has been scuttled by the state Supreme Court.

The two measures in South Dakota represent progress for cannabis advocates versus 2018, when MMJ supporters weren’t able to collect enough signatures to get a legalization initiative on the ballot.

The measures, especially the medical cannabis initiative, are considered more likely to pass than when Ohio voters in 2015 soundly rejected a long-shot initiative that would have simultaneously legalized medical and recreational cannabis.

Both the medical and adult-use legalization initiatives in South Dakota would enable local jurisdictions to exert some control over the number of business licenses allowed.

But the adult-use initiative, a constitutional amendment, expressly calls for the state to issue enough licenses to reduce the illicit market.

It’s uncertain where South Dakota residents stand on the issue of legalization – no independent poll has been reported although nationwide medical cannabis legalization is supported by more than 90% of Americans.

“We’re very optimistic, and I think we have a strong reason to be optimistic,” said Drey Samuelson, political director for South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, the umbrella group for both initiatives.

“Attitudes (toward marijuana legalization) have changed substantially nationally in the last two or three years. I don’t think we’re going to win by a zillion points, but I think we’ll win.”

He said it’s fair to assume that the medical cannabis initiative is likely to garner stronger support than the adult-use measure.

The Marijuana Policy Project notes that the initiatives have dozens of endorsements from leaders in health care, business and politics.

It helps, Samuelson said, that influential political figures such as Tom Daschle, who served as a Democratic U.S. Senator in South Dakota from 1987 to 2005, have become converts to cannabis.

In a recent op-ed for The Hill, Daschle advocated for legalizing marijuana federally.

He discussed how his view has evolved to see the economic, social justice and medical benefits of cannabis. He now serves on the board of advisers of Clever Leaves, a multinational medical cannabis company with its main operations in Colombia.

But there is plenty of opposition in South Dakota, too, including from Republican Gov. Kristi Noem and the South Dakota State Medical Association.

South Dakota is sparsely populated with only about 885,000 residents as of 2019.

It’s likely that support for the initiatives will be greatest in cities such as Sioux Falls and Rapid City as well as the state’s college towns, but “we believe a fair amount of rural people will vote for them too,” Samuelson said.

Here are how the initiatives stack up:

Initiative: Legalize a medical cannabis industry (new law)

Sponsor: New Approach South Dakota

License opportunities: A local government can’t ban medical cannabis but may establish the number of establishments allowed in its jurisdiction.

Other important business factors:

  • The state health department must establish program rules within 120 days, including scoring criteria should a local jurisdiction receive more applicants than the number of licenses allowed.
  • Individuals who have a debilitating medical condition as defined by the state are eligible for MMJ as long as a physician certifies the condition. Such conditions include “severe” pain.
  • A dispensary may not sell more than 3 ounces of cannabis to a qualified patient during a 14-day period.

Initiative: Legalize a recreational marijuana market (constitutional amendment)

Sponsor: South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws

License opportunities: The initiative calls for the state Department of Revenue to issue “enough licenses to substantially reduce the illicit production and sale of marijuana throughout the state.”

But state regulators also are directed in the initiative to limit licenses to “to prevent an undue concentration” in any municipality.

Four license types will be available: cultivators, wholesalers/processors, retail stores and testing facilities.

Other important business factors:

  • Local jurisdictions may ban marijuana operations in their areas or limit the locations of such operations. But a local government may not prohibit the transportation of marijuana products on public roads by those who are licensed elsewhere.

Jeff Smith can be reached at