PIERRE, S.D. — Leaders of ballot measures to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational uses in South Dakota rolled out for reporters a list of 50 people endorsing their efforts Wednesday.
Brendan Johnson, a past U.S. attorney for South Dakota, is sponsor of Constitutional Amendment A. It would allow people who were at least age 21 to use South Dakota-grown marijuana, or to grow, transport or distribute it in South Dakota to people who are at least 21.
A 15 percent excise tax on sales would be levied to pay for regulation by the state Department of Revenue, with any excess revenue to be split between state aid to public schools and state government’s general fund. The Legislature could adjust the rate after November 3, 2024.
Marijuana remains illegal under federal law.
Johnson said some states have gone ahead with legalization efforts anyway, under a hands-off guidance, known as the Cole Memorandum, that took effect during President Obama’s administration. William Barr, President Trump’s current U.S. Attorney General, has informally accepted its continuation “for now.”
Johnson was the federal Department of Justice’s U.S. attorney for South Dakota during much of the Obama administration, from October 2009 to March 2015. Randy Seiler succeeded Johnson in October 2015. Seiler, who retired in December 2017 and now is chairman of the South Dakota Democratic Party, was one of the people on the marijuana group’s endorsement list Wednesday.
Melissa Mentele of Emery is sponsor of Initiated Measure 26 that would legalize medical marijuana in South Dakota. Mentele told reporters Wednesday the constitutional amendment would provide political protection for her proposal. The Legislature can’t change the South Dakota Constitution.
Johnson and Mentele are part of the ‘Yes on A / Yes on 26’ campaign seeking a majority of voters to approve both measures in South Dakota’s November 3 general election. She said there would be a heavy focus on absentee ballots this fall.
The group’s political director is Drey Samuelson. He was the career-long chief of staff for now-retired U.S. Senator Tim Johnson, who served 28 years in Congress. The former senator, a Democrat, is Brendan Johnson’s father. Samuelson promised “a very active grassroots campaign.”
Also participating in the teleconference was Matt Schweich from the Marijuana Policy Project.
The Legislature, dominated by Republicans, approved a law permitting low-THC industrial hemp this year that Governor Kristi Noem, a Republican, signed into law. She vetoed somewhat similar legislation last year, describing industrial hemp as a gateway to legalizing marijuana.
Asked whether they thought the governor would come out against their proposals, Samuelson replied, “I’d be astonished if she doesn’t oppose it.” Johnson wasn’t willing to go that far: “South Dakota has an awful lot on its plate right now.”
Mentele’s medical-marijuana measure’s estimated impact on state government’s budget looks like a wash, but Johnson’s recreational-use amendment could raise more than $10 million in the fiscal year 2022 and in excess of $29 million in the fiscal year 2024.
Put Noem down as a ‘no’ vote on both, according to her press secretary. “The governor has always opposed legalizing marijuana and therefore opposes these measures. I cannot speak to what role she will play in these campaigns,” Ian Fury told KELOLAND News.
South Dakota voters have refused past attempts to legalize marijuana. The most recent instance was 2010, when medical marijuana failed, with 115,667 yes votes and 199,552 voting no.
Johnson said Wednesday there would be another financial benefit of legalization: Fewer people sentenced to South Dakota’s crowded state prisons for ingestion of marijuana. “The concern for me is we’re criminalizing a generation,” he said.
Among the 50 endorsers are Scott Heidepriem of Sioux Falls, a former legislator who was the Democratic candidate for governor in 2010; Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe President Tony Reider; Jack Billion of Sioux Falls, a former legislator and the 2006 Democratic candidate for governor; and Paula Hawks of Hartford, a former legislator and the Democrats’ 2016 candidate for U.S. House.