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South Dakota pot legalization bill cleared for Senate vote

February 17, 2022 GMT

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — A bipartisan proposal to legalize recreational marijuana in South Dakota survived its first test in the Legislature on Thursday as a Senate committee recommended the proposal for a vote in the full chamber next week.

With a 54% majority, voters approved recreational pot legalization through a ballot measure in 2020. However, Republican Gov. Kristi Noem challenged its constitutionality and the state Supreme Court ruled it should be nullified last year.

Marijuana legalization advocates are mounting a campaign to bring it back to voters in November, putting pressure on Republican lawmakers to legalize it this year. Even some who previously opposed legalizing recreational marijuana say it should get serious consideration now.

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Republican lawmakers who favor legalization say they owe it to voters and that the Legislature would be smart to take control of the process.

A bill known as Senate Bill 3 emerged from a committee of lawmakers that studied the issue for months last year. It would legalize recreational possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by people ages 21 and older, and reduce other penalties for possession. The bill also would allow it to be grown, processed and sold. Currently, possession of two ounces or less is a class 1 misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and $2,000 in fines.

Republican Sen. Michael Rohl, who sponsored the bill, presented a choice to the Senate Commerce and Energy committee on Thursday: pass a bill that legalizes up to one ounce of pot possession for adults over 21 but keeps the growing of cannabis plants at home illegal, or stand by as voters likely pass a ballot measure in November that allows the drug to be grown at home in some cases.

“It would be one of the more restrictive recreational programs in the country,” he told the committee.

Rohl said those who are pushing the ballot measure have promised to drop their campaign if the bill becomes law.

Law enforcement groups and the state medical association oppose the bill, but it got the Republican-controlled committee’s recommendation on a five to three vote.

Rohl said that when the bill goes to the Senate floor next week, he will tell the chamber that “the voters of South Dakota clearly expressed their will” in 2020, adding that upholding that “is our complete responsibility. That’s why we’re here.”

However, several top Republicans, including Noem and the Senate’s Republican leader, are not convinced.

“At this stage of the game, it’s just not going to happen,” Republican Sen. Gary Cammack said at a news conference earlier Thursday, arguing that lawmakers already had enough to tackle besides legalizing recreational pot.

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Noem also reaffirmed her opposition, saying that instead of focusing on recreational pot, she would rather push stricter vetting on people obtaining medical marijuana.

“We basically already have recreational marijuana,” she said, referring to Native American tribes setting up medical pot retail sites where people can also get a doctor’s recommendation.

The Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe, which set up the state’s first medical marijuana retail site, told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader that more than 100 people have been arrested by non-tribal law enforcement after obtaining medical marijuana identification cards from the tribe.

The Senate will also consider a bill that would set up a 15% tax on the manufacture of recreational pot if it becomes legalized, while the House next week is set to consider a separate bill that would tax sales of pot if voters approve legalization.