To Smoke or Not to Smoke: Cannabis Legality in South Dakota

South Dakota is another state with a complicated history with cannabis legality, however, most of the changes have happened rapidly and in recent years. Today we’ll discuss how the state’s long-standing stance against cannabis came to a halt almost overnight.

Heading to the Midwest

In the early 1900s, cannabis was not widely used or known in South Dakota, and there was relatively little discussion or debate about its use. However, as in other parts of the United States, attitudes toward cannabis began to change in the mid-20th century as the drug became more widely used and associated with countercultural movements.

No Summer Love for Cannabis

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In the 1960s and 1970s, South Dakota saw a rise in marijuana use, particularly among young people. This was in line with national trends at the time, as the "hippie" counterculture and anti-war movement popularized the use of marijuana and other drugs.

In response to this trend, South Dakota, like many other states, began to pass stricter drug laws and to crack down on marijuana use and possession. In 1977, South Dakota passed a law making possession of even small amounts of marijuana a felony offense. This law, which carried a penalty of up to 15 years in prison, was one of the strictest in the country at the time.

In the years that followed, South Dakota continued to take a tough stance on marijuana, with law enforcement officials and politicians arguing that the drug was a dangerous and addictive substance that posed a threat to public safety. This view was challenged by some advocates and researchers, who argued that marijuana was not as harmful as many believed and that criminalizing its use and possession was doing more harm than good.

Fast Forward to Failure

In 2018, South Dakota voters approved a ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana in the state. However, the state's governor, Kristi Noem, opposed the measure and vetoed a bill that would have implemented the initiative in 2019. Noem argued that legalizing medical marijuana could lead to increased drug use and that it would be difficult for law enforcement to distinguish between legal and illegal marijuana.

A Different Approach

In 2020, South Dakota voters again took up the issue of marijuana, this time considering two separate ballot initiatives. One initiative proposed legalizing medical marijuana in the state, while the other proposed legalizing recreational marijuana for adults 21 and over.

Both measures were approved by voters in the November 2020 election. However, their implementation has been met with legal challenges and opposition from some lawmakers in the state.

All Brakes, No Gas

The recreational marijuana initiative, known as Constitutional Amendment A, faced an even bigger hurdle. Shortly after the election, a group of law enforcement officials and the governor's office filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of the measure. In February 2021, the state's Supreme Court ruled that the measure was unconstitutional because it dealt with more than one subject and therefore violated the state's single-subject rule. As a result, the recreational marijuana initiative will not be implemented, and it is unclear if or when another effort to legalize recreational marijuana will take place in South Dakota.

Victory At Last

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The medical marijuana initiative, known as Initiated Measure 26, was set to take effect on July 1, 2021, but was delayed by a lawsuit filed by the governor and other opponents of the measure. The lawsuit argued that the measure was unconstitutional because it dealt with more than one subject and that it violated the state's budgeting process. A judge eventually ruled in favor of the measure, and medical marijuana sales are expected to begin in the state in the fall of 2021.

Dispensaries and Dollar Signs

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While the first state-licensed medical marijuana dispensary in South Dakota did not open until July of 2022, there was one place in the state to purchase medical cannabis beginning July of 2021. Native Nations Cannabis is a business owned by the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe that became the first dispensary to sell medical marijuana in the state of South Dakota. 

The tribe was able to do this since under federal law, Native Nations are considered separate sovereigns, with the power to create their own laws and regulations within their borders. Based on this fact, the tribe decided to open their doors to patients with a proper doctor’s recommendation on the day Initiated Measure 26 was meant to be implemented across the state.

Full Steam Ahead

Once the legal issues with Initiated Measure 26 were solved, the state was able to begin handing out licenses for state approved dispensaries and began to issue medical marijuana prescriptions to qualifying patients in November of 2021.

July of 2022 saw patients with state issued medical cards finally given the opportunity to access state-licensed products. The opportunity comes in the form of the Unity Rd. Dispensary in Hartford, South Dakota a whole year after Native Nations Cannabis opened their doors.

While most cultivators stated they would not be prepared with cannabis product before the fall of 2022, Unity Rd. was able to open due to a unique relationship with its cultivator, Dakota Natural Solutions Grow. The dispensary owners and the cultivators worked to build their infrastructure together, so they could move full steam ahead once the appropriate licenses were acquired.

Unity Rd. started off only selling cannabis flower, but quickly added edibles and concentrates to their menu. The company offers franchising agreements for cannabis businesses and sees itself as a pioneer in the South Dakota medical cannabis industry.

Hope for Recreational Cannabis

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As medical cannabis makes its mark on the state of South Dakota, cannabis advocates look towards the future for the mighty green plant. While 2023 may not see a recreational cannabis amendment on the ballot, there is hope there may be in the next few years.

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