EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a two-part series examining the mixed messages young people are receiving about marijuana since its legalization for recreational use in some parts of the United States.
South Dakota voters have had two opportunities to legalize marijuana as a medicinal tool, and two times the effort failed.
One of the main advocacy groups behind the efforts, voted on in 2006 and 2010, was the South Dakota Coalition for Compassion. The group’s former campaign coordinator, Emmett Reistroffer, said since the last electoral defeat, the group has since disbanded. However he and others affiliated with it have continued to spearhead efforts for some form of legalization at the state level ever since.
“Lately, a lot of us (who had been involved in the coalition) have wanted to switch gears and advocate for industrial hemp in South Dakota,” Reistroffer said. “We’re seeking sponsors in the Legislature and so far I’ve had some good conversations with folks.”
As states continue to pass legislation allowing possession of marijuana for medicinal purposes (20 as of 2014) and recreational use (Washington and Colorado), conflicting federal stances on the drug and controversy surrounding legalization have led to mixed messages on the drug itself.
The mixed message is reflected in how the state has voted on the issue in the past. The last effort to go to ballot, Measure 13 in 2010, lost with only 37 percent of voters in favor of the proposal. A similar measure in 2006 managed to garner 48 percent support.
In a 2010 interview with KSFY, South Dakota attorney general Marty Jackley said he did not support the measure due to past experience with enforcement.
“I do not support it,” Jackley said. “The reason is based upon, I believe, my history of being a drug prosecutor in western South Dakota and then a U.S. attorney, and now serving as the attorney general. I've witnessed some of the concerns that come about by the use of marijuana.”
Despite the setback, Reistroffer has continued advocacy as late as last year’s legislative session and said he’s seen a shift in momentum with laws and attitudes changing across the country.
“I lobbied in the last session for a medical marijuana bill (titled the Medical Necessity Defense Bill) and we had some pretty good sponsors,” Reistroffer said. “I was very pleased because, in the past, we’d find someone who would bring up a bill, it would get some discussion and then be pulled out of committee with just a couple votes. There weren’t a lot of legislators that were really willing to look at this issue outside the context of prohibition. We’ve come a long ways in that sense because last year, the bill lost by just one vote in the committee.”
Reistroffer said a lack of common ground has stymied legalization efforts within the state.
“There really has been a struggle with what type of proposal would work in South Dakota and what we can really find the most common ground on,” he said. “We definitely cannot legalize marijuana like Colorado has ... It’s a really difficult challenge, but I know the momentum’s on our side overall.”
Reistroffer said some of the confusion arises from a need for more understanding on the subject of what legalization is and how users are viewed in society.
“There is an issue to be dealt with and that’s with the education and responsibility which effects all ends of the spectrum,” he said. “Within the movement to legalize marijuana, there’s a range of ideas of how to legalize it and what legalization actually means. I think we need to approach it with a fusion model of what we’ve learned regulating other substances.”
Reistroffer cited examples of the tobacco industry and how resources have been allocated into education in order to clear the message on the substance.
“With tobacco, we’ve prohibited advertising (on television) and put a lot more money in education and the helpline and other preventative measures,” he said. “We could do that with marijuana. There should not be billboards or mass commercialization.”
He added the ultimate goal of legalization is to take power out of the black market and free up law enforcement resources to focus on other issues.
“The idea is to end the violence and end the black market that’s worth billions of dollars, and take that power away from criminals and empower law enforcement to go after violent crime and make the community safer,” he said. “What we’ve been doing is stigmatizing drug use and teaching our children that we have to punish (users), and that approach has not worked. What we are learning is de-stigmatizing drug use and telling those people, ‘You’re not a bad person, but you need help, and we’re going to get you all the help you need,’ and that approach is actually working.”
“The messaging issue comes down to personal responsibility — people who use marijuana need to be responsible and they need to be smart — and generally speaking, there’s far less issues with that than there is with alcohol, where we have serious issues with personal responsibility and addiction.”
Reistroffer said the message ultimately ought to be centered around responsibility — but not lose focus of the goal.
“We should stand by our values, and parents should teach their kids to stay sober and stay away from peer pressure and negative influences,” he said. “But I don’t think parents should lose sight of what the goal really is. If we want to get serious about this, we’re going to treat addiction as a disease, we’re going to empower our police to use their time more effectively, we’re going to improve the way we rehabilitate people and we’re going to restructure how we talk about the issue. Everything we’ve been trying for longer than I’ve been alive hasn’t worked.”
Reistroffer said he expects to have a draft for a bill dealing with legalization of industrial hemp submitted to the Legislature by the end of the month.