South Dakota Supreme Court rejects voter-approved recreational marijuana market

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Image of South Dakota state capitol building

The South Dakota Supreme Court is housed in the state capitol building in Pierre.

South Dakota’s highest court on Wednesday struck down on technical grounds a recreational marijuana initiative approved by voters in 2020, shattering the development of a projected $285 million market.

A Marijuana Policy Project official, calling the ruling “extremely flawed” and “disrespectful” to voters, pledged that advocates would continue to work to legalize adult-use cannabis in one of the country’s most conservative states.

Wednesday’s ruling also reflects a trend in which public officials use the courts to overturn the will of the voters.

In May, Mississippi’s highest court voided a voter-approved medical marijuana legalization referendum.

In the November 2020 election, 54% of South Dakota’s voters approved adult-use legalization, but a state highway patrol superintendent filed suit against the measure on behalf of the state’s anti-marijuana governor, Republican Kristi Noem.

A lower court and now the state Supreme Court – on the eve of Thanksgiving and seven months after oral arguments – ruled that the referendum violated a single-subject rule.

South Dakota was the first state where voters approved both medical and recreational marijuana during the same election.

The 2021 MJBizFactbook projected that South Dakota adult-use sales would have reached $100 million in the first full year and $285 million by the fourth year.

Matt Schweich, MPP’s deputy director and campaign director for South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, characterized the court’s ruling as deeply flawed.

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“The court has rejected common sense and instead used a far-fetched legal theory to overturn a law passed by over 225,000 South Dakota voters based on no logical or evidentiary support,” he said in a statement.

Schweich said the ruling, which argued that the referendum comprised three subjects – recreational cannabis, medical marijuana and hemp legalization – “relies on the disrespectful assumption that South Dakota voters were intellectually incapable of understanding the initiative.”

Schweich maintained there was no evidence of voter confusion and said “it’s unacceptable that the court would violate the ballot initiative process based on no actual evidence.”

He added that the South Dakota Supreme Court taking nearly seven months to issue a ruling on an election-related lawsuit also is “extremely problematic” and undermines the “public’s faith in South Dakota’s elections, its system of government, and its judiciary.”

Schweich’s group had considered the possibility that the high court would reject the referendum and is collecting signatures to try to put adult-use legalization back on the 2022 ballot.

The group missed an early deadline but received an extension until May 2022.

The development of a medical marijuana market in South Dakota is in progress, but Noem also has tried to delay and restrict that program.

Jeff Smith can be reached at jeff.smith@mjbizdaily.com