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Senate and House pass medical pot bills, collision looms

January 25, 2022 GMT

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota’s Senate on Tuesday passed a spate of bills to put lawmakers’ mark on the state’s new voter-passed medical marijuana law.

Several of the bills approved by the Senate would ease access to medical pot for some patients, but House Republican lawmakers are moving in the opposite direction. On Monday, they passed a proposal that would bar patients from growing cannabis plants at home, setting up a potential collision as the Senate seeks to cap the number of homegrown plants.

Legislators this year are honing in on a law passed by voters in 2020, bringing over 30 bills addressing the medical marijuana program. They touch on everything from how many plants can be grown in patients’ homes to which state agencies can investigate medical pot businesses that run afoul of the law.

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Republicans’ ability to change the state’s new medical marijuana program will largely depend on whether House and Senate lawmakers can find consensus. So far, lawmakers who want to restrict medical pot hold sway in the Republican-held House, while many senators have shown a reluctance to step too heavily on a law that voters passed.

“I keep going back to what happened when the earth shook in November of 2020, when 70% of the voters wanted medical marijuana,” Republican Sen. V.J. Smith told a committee. “It was a wake-up call.”

A joint committee of senators and House members spent the last year studying marijuana industries in other states and crafting bills to hone South Dakota’s program. But any cohesion from that committee has quickly dissipated in the early weeks of this year’s legislative session.

House lawmakers arguing for a ban on homegrown cannabis tapped into fears that it would fuel the black market for the drug, invite drug cartels to set up in the state and lead to more children getting high.

“Homegrown is impossible to regulate,” said Republican Rep. Fred Deutsch, pointing out that other states in the region have not allowed it.

When Deutsch’s bill passed the House on a 41-29 vote, Republican Sen. Michael Rohl said it showed that even though the Legislature has accepted the medical marijuana law, attitudes towards the drug have changed little since last year when an effort to delay implementation of the program passed the House before being halted in the Senate.

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Gov. Kristi Noem led that effort last year, but she has mostly removed herself from this year’s marijuana debate — an indication of just how politically fraught the issue has become for the Republican governor, who was once a powerful foe of any legislation that would move the state closer to full pot legalization.

Several House lawmakers appear undeterred, however, and have brought several bills that would chip at parts of the voter-passed law. That has left the nascent medical marijuana industry once again busy lobbying lawmakers in the halls of the Capitol.

Kittrick Jeffries, who runs Dakota Cannabis Consulting, said of the dozens of bills before lawmakers this year, “Last year, we did play defense. This year, we’re playing defense times five.”