David Owen

David Owen, president and chief lobbyist of the South Dakota Chamber of Commerce & Industry, addresses the Yankton Area Chamber of Commerce’s annual pre-legislative breakfast Wednesday morning.

Hemp could be going to another vote of the South Dakota Legislature, while marijuana — be it medicinal or otherwise — could be going to a vote of the people in South Dakota in 2020.

David Owen, president and chief lobbyist of the South Dakota Chamber of Commerce & Industry, addressed members of the Yankton Area Chamber of Commerce for its annual pre-legislative breakfast Wednesday with a little news on what state politics could look like next year.

“Tongue in cheek, the state’s going to pot,” Owen said as he introduced the only two ballot measures submitted in time for review for addition to next year’s ballot.

Both measures deal with the legalization of marijuana.

Under the first submitted ballot measure, marijuana would be legalized medicinally for qualifying patients, including those under 18. Registration would be done through the Department of Health and patients could possess up to 3 ounces, grow three plants and would see dispensaries legalized as well. There were 30,000 signatures submitted with the measure, versus the 16,921 valid signatures required.

The second measure, an amendment to the state constitution, would legalize marijuana for recreational use with a 15% excise tax. It would be available to individuals over 21 years old and require licensing for commercial growers and medicinal users. The 15% excise tax — which it’s estimated would bring in $29 million by 2024 — would see revenues split between education and the general fund.

Versus the required 33,921 valid signatures, 50,000 signatures were submitted.

Both ballot measures still have to have their signatures verified.

Owen said, based on previous experience, the state Chamber is likely not to support the measures.

“We’re not officially opposed to these two,” he said. “But I will share with you, the leadership of the South Dakota Chamber made it very clear to me two years ago they have no interest in legalized pot.”

He said concerns exist among members that legalization would make it difficult to find workers who could pass a drug test.

“I had the president of the Colorado Chamber call in and (I) asked, ‘How are you surviving this thing?’” Owen said. “It’s tolerable, because in their experience, because their Supreme Court has reaffirmed the fact that businesses can terminate people for a positive THC test. … As long as it’s still legal to terminate them, that has kept this from destroying their workforce.”

After Wednesday’s breakfast wrapped up, Owen said there are a couple of reasons the measures are finding their way onto the ballot more easily.

“Baby Boomers getting older is part of it,” he said. “A lot of states have just given up the fight on marijuana. They’re tired of paying the incarceration costs. It’s not perceived as the evil that ‘Reefer Madness’ — which is an old movie — kind of suggested. I think we’re more comfortable adding marijuana to our recreational choices.”

While he doesn’t feel that South Dakota is ready to take that leap yet, citing neighboring North Dakota’s rejection of a similar ballot initiative last year, he sees more potential in the medical marijuana initiative.

“(It’s) going to be a more interesting debate,” he said. “As real-life politics deals with it these days, it’s going to determine how much money is available for which side of the campaign.”

During Wednesday’s meeting, Owen also brought up the likelihood that hemp will be a dominant issue during the 2020 legislative session.

Last year, legislation legalizing hemp cultivation came within four votes of overriding a gubernatorial veto in the state Senate.

Owen said that passage of one or both of the marijuana issues would likely quell one of the biggest arguments against hemp.

“The governor’s main argument is you almost can’t legalize hemp without compromising your law enforcement on marijuana,” he said. “If we vote to legalize marijuana, that takes down that argument and I think clears the path for legalized hemp. We’re one of very few states that has hemp as not legal, so resolving the broader issue that she’s identified clears up the immediate one.”

He expects hemp to perform slightly better in the Legislature this coming year.

“They almost overrode her veto in the last session,” he said. “They’re four votes short in the Senate. I encourage the public to watch carefully because she will veto it. My guess is it will pass and she may get overridden, even this year.”

Owen said that, in spite of the Republican super-majority, there’s a lot more diversity of thought that causes legislators to split away from the governor.

“Our notions of what’s conservative are changing,” he said. “Conservative in one line says, ‘That’s illegal. It’s been illegal. It must be illegal.’ Conservative says, ‘Get government out of this thing. Everybody’s comfortable with it. We’ve seen from states around us that this can be done.’ Those inter-party, inter-philosophical lines are smeared.”

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