I’ve been in the newspaper business since the Reagan era, and I’ve seen a lot of election surprises in all that time. But if you had told me 10 years ago — heck, even 10 months ago — that, in my lifetime, South Dakota would become the first state in the country to approve both recreational and medical marijuana on the same day, I would have discreetly, tactfully concluded you were stoned.
But here we are, in the wake of Tuesday’s stunning election when South Dakota voters approved both a medical marijuana initiative and a constitutional amendment legalizing recreational marijuana. (Montana, Arizona and New Jersey also passed recreational measures this week, and Mississippi OK’d medical cannabis.) When I realized what was happening late Tuesday night, my first thought was of the words of “Futurama’s” Turanga Leela, “This is, by a wide margin, the least likeliest thing to ever happen.”
Up until Tuesday, almost everything in my experience as a South Dakotan told me marijuana legalization was never going to happen here.
But, as I said, almost. I truly believed medical marijuana, which the state’s voters had already rejected twice, had a shot this time. I’ve talked to people for several years — people dealing with various afflictions, or coping with cancer treatments, etc. — who looked at the matter in terms of practicality, telling me, in effect, “Well, if it can help me (or a family member) deal with (a particular pain or problem), then why not?” So, I sensed some tailwind behind the initiative, and the resounding manner in which it passed proved that. It was a far different outcome from a decade ago when the second effort to pass medical marijuana was crushed at the ballot box, after the first effort, in 2006, lost narrowly. At that point, it all seemed headed in the opposite direction.
And THAT was the South Dakota I thought I knew. That electoral thrashing was reflective of a broader, deeper mindset that governed this nation’s attitudes on marijuana since at least the 1930s, when the product was demonized to the point where even industrial hemp was deemed illicit. It’s been reflected in drug laws that didn’t allow for much leeway. While those laws have eased in recent years, there was still a taboo in place that was a product of the old, hard-line views.
There are probably several reasons for the success of recreational marijuana here this week.
First, the revenue aspect is alluring, especially given how chronically tight our state budget perpetually is. New revenue source? Light up!
There’s also the possibility, as some critics have claimed, that many voters were confusing the recreational amendment with the medical initiative. (I need to note that there was wording in the recreational amendment that referred to medicinal usage, so the latter was, in effect, on the ballot twice.)
Another possibility is that marijuana is just not viewed in such dark, disapproving terms anymore, especially when compared to the wrath of other substances such as meth or opioids, and perhaps it was time to finally put an end to the all-out war on cannabis. That evolution of attitude is part of a national trend. As Steve Hawkins, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, noted, “One-third of the population now lives in jurisdictions that have legalized cannabis for adult use, and 70% of all states have embraced cannabis for medical use.” The times are changing, indeed.
So, South Dakota is a very different place today, which leads to a lot of questions.
How significant is it for South Dakota to embrace these marijuana measures? Perhaps very. Matthew Schweich, deputy director of the Marijuana Policy Project, said South Dakota “is arguably the most conservative state yet to enact marijuana legalization. … A few years ago, nobody would have predicted that South Dakota would legalize marijuana before New York.” Let that sink in for a moment.
How will law enforcement and other local officials deal with this?
Will it put an end to illegal marijuana use? History suggests probably not. When the prohibition on alcohol was repealed in 1933, it didn’t stop illegal moonshining. Instead, it sort of led to NASCAR, but that’s another story …
What will this do to drug testing in this state?
What message does this send to kids, who many adults and groups have worked for years to steer AWAY from marijuana?
What will this do to our relationships with states like Nebraska, which has had its problems with people coming in from Colorado carrying pot and creating legal issues?
How will this impact South Dakota’s tourism? Will it make the state a more alluring destination?
What will this do for the state’s efforts to attract new businesses? Will companies be scared off by the marijuana laws, or drawn by them? Will it even matter?
Will the pluses (whatever they are) outweigh the minuses (whatever they are)?
How will state lawmakers respond to this decision? Unfortunately, this could be a big one. Gov. Kristi Noem has long opposed legalized marijuana and on Thursday called this week’s results “the wrong choice for South Dakota’s communities.” We all recall what happened a couple years ago when state voters approved an initiated measure regarding lawmaker ethics, and some lawmakers then promptly tried to gut it. A lot of people worry the same thing could happen with this in Pierre.
There are a lot of other questions to be answered, and some questions I probably haven’t even dreamed of asking. This really is new territory. I’m kind of shocked we’re here, but it will be fascinating to see where we as a state go with it next.
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