By Keegan Williams

South Dakota voters were in a unique position this election season, voting on whether to legalize recreational cannabis after they already approved such an amendment in 2020. Needless to say, the first attempt didn’t stick, and on November 8, 2022, South Dakotans ultimately said no to the reform measure, leaving adult-use cannabis illegal in the state.

As South Dakota presses forward with its medical cannabis market, also approved through a 2020 initiative, the shift in stance is an interesting next chapter in the state’s ongoing cannabis saga. But how exactly did the state get here and what led to the most recent rejection of adult-use cannabis?

The First Attempt: Amendment A

Amendment A was unique, in that it would have made South Dakota the first state in the U.S. to legalize recreational and medical cannabis simultaneously. A yes vote supported a change to the state constitution, requiring the state legislature to legalize recreational cannabis; authorizing the State Department of Revenue to issue licenses for cultivation, testing, manufacturing, wholesale and retail; imposing a 15% tax on cannabis sales; authorizing local governments to enact regulations for licensees; and additionally requiring lawmakers to establish a medical cannabis program and legalizing hemp sales by April 1, 2022.

The amendment appeared on the 2020 ballot alongside Initiated Measure 26, which established a medical cannabis program in South Dakota for individuals with a debilitating medical condition, as certified by a physician. Both measures were supported by New Approach South Dakota, Marijuana Policy Project, and South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws.

Amendment A passed with 54.18% voter approval, and Initiated Measure 26 also passed with 69.92% approval. While medical cannabis was eventually legalized through 26, with South Dakota’s first licensed medical dispensary opening its doors in July 2022, the recreational measure quickly hit a snag. On February 8, 2022, Judge Christina Klinger ruled Amendment A was unconstitutional for violating the state’s single-subject rule, meaning that a constitutional amendment can only cover a single issue. Judge Klinger also said it constituted a revision of the constitution, rather than an amendment. 

On November 24, 2021, the state Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling, effectively nullifying Amendment A, leaving cannabis advocates to rally for legalization once more in 2022.

A Second Attempt Ends in Failure: Initiated Measure 27

While Initiated Measure 27 would have legalized the possession, distribution, and use of cannabis for adults over 21 years old, the measure did not address licensing, taxation, local government regulations of cannabis, or hemp regulations, unlike Amendment A.

Matthew Schweich, campaign leader for the Yes on 27 campaign, described the measure to KELO-TV as “cannabis legalization for the individual,” adding, “It’s really about personal freedom and ensuring that small amounts of cannabis do not make you a criminal.”

Ultimately, 53% of voters rejected recreational cannabis this time around. As results poured in, analysts blamed the shift on a number of factors. For one, there was stronger opposition in 2022, with Protecting South Dakota Kids leading the campaign in opposition to the ballot initiative. The organization argued that legalization would lead to more harm and that criminal justice reform was possible “without commercializing today’s highly pure THC pot products.”

There was also a lower voter turnout, as more than 415,000 votes were cast on Amendment A in 2020, with more than 68,000 fewer votes cast this year. It’s also possible that President Joe Biden’s recent pardons on prior federal offenses for simple cannabis positions, along with a call to reexamine the scheduling of cannabis on a federal level, influenced voters.

South Dakota voters joined those in North Dakota and Arkansas, rejecting recreational cannabis proposals this year. Voters in Maryland and Missouri conversely cast their ballots and approved their respective, adult-use cannabis initiatives, joining the other 19 legal, adult-use states in the country. If the journey of other states, and South Dakota’s story so far, is any indication, this setback for cannabis advocates is likely to usher in even more momentum for election season 2024. As the state’s medical program matures and overall attitudes around cannabis continue to shift, South Dakotans could face a very different reality next time around.