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South Dakota Senate passes bill to legalize recreational pot

February 24, 2022 GMT

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — The South Dakota Senate on Wednesday passed a proposal to legalize recreational marijuana, as Republicans reasoned they should jump ahead of a campaign to legalize it on the November ballot.

The bill passed by a single vote in the Republican-controlled Senate, showing just how divided lawmakers are on pot legalization. The proposal will next head to the House, where Republicans have pushed tighter restrictions on medical marijuana.

They have been prodded by voters, who approved by 54% a 2020 constitutional amendment, known as Amendment A, to legalize recreational pot, medical marijuana and hemp. However, Republican Gov. Kristi Noem challenged its constitutionality and the state Supreme Court ruled it should be nullified last year.

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Marijuana legalization advocates are mounting a campaign to bring it back to voters in November, and some Republicans argue they should jump on the law-making process.

“This is your opportunity to take control of the issue,” Republican Sen. David Wheeler, told the Senate. “This bill is your opportunity to do what the people said they wanted in Amendment A.”

Sponsors of this year’s ballot measure campaign have also offered a compromise to the Legislature: they will drop the campaign if a law is enacted. The Senate’s bill would not allow cannabis plants to be grown in people’s homes and allow local governments to opt out of allowing retail sites.

The proposal, 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. 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.

However, those opposed argued that recreational pot legalization is not a done deal.

“If the voters tell us that’s what they want when they actually get the chance to say how they feel, we’ll find out,” said Republican Sen. Lee Schoenbeck. “But there’s no reason to get ahead of that.”

Noem, who has repeatedly voiced opposition to legalizing recreational marijuana, would also get a chance to veto the bill if it passes the House. At a news conference Wednesday, she said she wouldn’t take the compromise offered by the ballot campaign sponsors to drop the ballot measure if a law is enacted.

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“If the people of South Dakota this fall really want to have that debate, they’ll have a few more months under their belt to see really what impact the medical program is having,” the governor said.

Meanwhile, the Senate readied for pot to be legalized, whether in the Legislature or at the ballot. Lawmakers passed a series of bills Wednesday to set up retail licenses in the same way it licenses liquor establishments, create a tax on marijuana manufacturers and automatically remove from background check records misdemeanors and petty offenses for pot ingestion or possession that are more than five years old.

“The train on marijuana is only moving in one direction nationwide,” Wheeler said. “It is better for us to get ahead of it.”