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South Dakota voters will face double-legalization ballot in November

South Dakota residents will vote on both adult-use and medical marijuana in separate measures this November. That’s a first for America’s legalization movement—but will having two measures on the same ballot help or hurt their chances of passage?

Will having two measures on the same ballot help or hurt their chances of passage?

Constitutional Amendment A, the adult-use measure, was officially added to the ballot on Monday after the South Dakota secretary of state confirmed the necessary 33,921 signatures. A separate measure to put medical marijuana on the ballot, Initiated Measure 26, was validated last month.

Other states have put competing medical marijuana legalization measures on the same ballot. Missouri actually put three medical proposals before voters in Nov. 2018. (New Approach Missouri’s Amendment 2 garnered the most votes, and therefore became law.) Other states have followed the adoption of medical legalization with adult-use. Only four years elapsed between Massachusetts’ legalization of medical (in 2012) and adult-use (in 2016). North Dakota tried to beat that record by passing medical in 2016 and adult-use in 2018. The 2018 adult-use measure failed.

But no state has attempted to pass both medical and adult-use on the same ballot.

Parallel campaigns, shared resources

Getting voters to approve both measures, may require coordinated efforts from the two main organizations behind them: New Approach South Dakota is focused on the medical bill, while the national Marjuana Policy Project will push for adult-use legalization.

“We’re going to run parallel campaigns, and share resources,” said Melissa Mentele, the executive director of New Approach South Dakota and a veteran medical marijuana advocate.

“It’s new territory for us,” added Matthew Schweich, deputy director at the Marijuana Policy Project, of the concurrent ballot measures. “Many voters will see them as one decision; other voters will see them as two distinct decisions. We need a campaign strategy that accommodates both of those voters.”

Navigating GOP resistance

Both ballot measures are likely to encounter resistance from South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican who vetoed an industrial hemp bill last March after it passed in the state legislature.

“Legalizing industrial hemp legalizes marijuana by default,” she wrote in an op-ed originally published in the Wall Street Journal. “Legalizing industrial hemp weakens drug laws. It hurts law enforcement. It’s a step backward.”

South Dakota's governor is so anti-cannabis that she recently vetoed a bill on hemp.

The adult-use measure, Constitutional Amendment A, includes a provision that requires the state to pass a separate hemp bill.

Cannabis legalization has proven to be one of America’s few remaining political issues with bipartisan support. Nationally, medical marijuana enjoys more than 90% approval, according to a 2019 Pew Research poll. And former Republican leaders like John Boehner have joined the legal cannabis industry as active players.

Nevertheless, South Dakota’s state Republican party has come out strongly opposed to both measures. During South Dakota’s state fair last summer, the state GOP circulated messages both in person and online warning residents against “liberal groups” pushing for several amendments, including cannabis reform.

“Who would run a campaign to remove citizens from participating in democracy?” remarked Mentele. “All we’re doing is putting it on ballot to have a conversation. It was kind of heartbreaking to see it was the state GOP [doing it].”

Schweich says his campaign will stick to the facts. “We don’t need to twist facts to win the argument,” he said. “In no legal state has there been a serious attempt to repeal the law. It’s worked very well in states that have adopted it. The proof is in the pudding.”

2nd Amendment rights a big issue

Both Mentele and Schweich are working on strategies that will have particular resonance with South Dakotans. The state passed a constitutional carry law last year; it allows residents to carry a concealed handgun without a permit. Signing up with the state’s medical marijuana registry, however, would likely make it impossible to legally carry a gun.

The federal Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibits any cannabis consumer from purchasing a gun.

“One thing we heard consistently was about the Second Amendment,” Mentele said. “Adult-use is great for patients who don’t want to be part of the registry.” In legal adult-use states, consumers don’t need to register or give their names in order to purchase cannabis. IDs are checked at the door, but personal data is not collected.

‘We don’t like being told what not to do’

As for the GOP’s attempts to dissuade voters, Mentele believes those efforts backfired: “We are a hardheaded state,” she said. “We don’t like being told what not to do. “

Schweich intends to focus his campaign on undecided, middle-of-the-road voters who, he believes, are “probably in their 40’s and politically moderate.”

“On the medical side we will talk about how sick and suffering people are forced to be criminals in order to alleviate medical conditions,” he said. “On the legalization side, it’s about [allowing] law enforcement to focus on serious crime, not ruining or disrupting peoples’ lives—otherwise law-abiding people who want to consume or possess marijuana. It’s about generating jobs and business for [adjacent] businesses. We may end up focused on the same type of voter.”

Mentele, who is licensed to provide cannabis education to health care professionals, is looking forward to providing formal seminars on medical cannabis in the coming months, including a two-day event for Native Americans in the state. “We’ve done a lot of streetside education,” she said. “Now we get the opportunity to do real education.” The 2018 Farm Bill permits Native Americans to grow hemp, even in states like South Dakota that prohibit it.

A conservative state, a popular issue

Other politically conservative states like Oklahoma have passed medical legalization measures and opened some of the nation’s most robust medical marijuana systems. A victory in South Dakota could continue that momentum and potentially help the cause of federal reform. “If South Dakota approves this initiative, it’ll be the most conservative state to legalize marijuana for adults,” Schweich observed.

“The low-hanging blue fruit, so to speak, in Democratic-leaning states that allow ballot initiatives, we’ve done all of them” he added. “For us to continue to make progress, we need to venture into new territory.”

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Max Savage Levenson

Max Savage Levenson likely has the lowest cannabis tolerance of any writer on the cannabis beat. He also writes about music for Pitchfork, Bandcamp and other bespectacled folk. He co-hosts The Hash podcast. His dream interview is Tyler the Creator.

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