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South Dakota? Conservative state surprises with pot passage

November 4, 2020 GMT
Voters cast their ballots on Election Day on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, at First Lutheran Church in Sioux Falls, S.D. (Erin Bormett/The Argus Leader via AP)
Voters cast their ballots on Election Day on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, at First Lutheran Church in Sioux Falls, S.D. (Erin Bormett/The Argus Leader via AP)

Marijuana fans in a conservative and rural state known for mountainside stone sculptures of four U.S. presidents may have been a bit dazed Wednesday morning upon learning that South Dakota residents voted to legalize recreational pot.

The state not only rejected medical cannabis four years ago and struggled recently to legalize industrial hemp, its Republican governor and GOP-controlled legislature opposed what organizers gently referred to as the “adult marijuana” measure. Instead, on a night when South Dakota swiftly delivered its three electoral votes to Donald Trump, it became the first state to legalize recreational and medical pot on the same ballot.

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Reaction on social media took the same form in many cases, with posts wondering how the Mount Rushmore state could pass recreational marijuana before (insert state here). That included South Dakota native Dianna Anderson, 34, an author from Minneapolis who tweeted that “god help me if south dakota legalizes marijuana tonight and minnesota hasn’t?”

Anderson noted in a message to The Associated Press Wednesday that South Dakota’s “very strong libertarian streak” made it less surprising than it might appear to the rest of the country.

The South Dakota Chamber of Commerce and Industry took the lead on opposing the measure. The group’s president, Dave Owen, said the fact the groups behind recreational and medical marijuana ran a joint campaign, no pun intended, proved to be effective because many people felt they needed to vote for both measures.

Owen said his group’s campaign tried to separate the two initiatives but was at a huge financial disadvantage.

“The fact that medical passed with 70% and it was about 53% for recreational tells me our message was effective,” Owen said. “But $300,000 of South Dakota money up against $1.5 million of out-of-state money from Washington, D.C.? You can’t be surprised at the result.”

Drey Samuelson, political director of the group that led the push, said the results showed that “not all power in this state resides in Pierre.”

One supporter of both measures, retired police officer Joey Collins, of Brookings, figured the medical proposal was a slam dunk but said he was “extremely surprised” to see the recreational plan gain approval. Collins said he voted for the latter measure for financial reasons.

“The numbers show how much money the state can make,” Collins said. “Those are dollars that can be used to give our teachers pay raises and go toward other different programs. And I think people felt that at some point it’s going to be legal, it’s not too early for the state to get to work on it.”

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The next step is for the state Department of Revenue to formulate the regulations and draw up licensing requirements for stores, said Brendan Johnson, a Sioux Falls lawyer who proposed the amendment. The initiative allows communities to prohibit businesses from setting up pot shops but residents of those towns who are 21 and older can possess up to 1 ounce. The measures are set to go into effect in July.

“We wrote this in a way where it will still be very well regulated along with a lot of local control,” said Johnson, a former U.S. attorney.

Anderson, the Minneapolis author, questioned how much money could be made from sales of 1 ounce of marijuana and said it ”remains to be seen if they’ll develop the booming economy Colorado has, where it’s not only legal, but it’s regulated and sold.”

Robert Crump, 43, of Rapid City, told The Associated Press he voted in favor of recreational marijuana when he lived in Colorado eight years ago but against it Tuesday for fear of hurting business and tourism in the Black Hills. He emphasized that point on Twitter the day before the election when he posted, “The stoners can drive to Denver if they want weed.”