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South Dakota House’s top legislators knock down bid to change petition process

Rep. Fred Deutsch, an opponent of last year's failed cannabis ballot measure, introduced a proposal to disallow consecutive attempts at statewide referenda. A House committee rejected the bill 10-2.

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Rep. Fred Deutsch, R-Florence, pitches his proposed amendment to the House State Affairs committee on Jan. 20. The proposal was swatted down 10-2.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service
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PIERRE, S.D. — Almost immediately after the ballot measure attempting to legalize marijuana for adult use failed at the ballot box on Election Day in 2022, backers of the measure began their work to take a swing at the 2024 election.

"We are considering a 2024 adult-use cannabis legalization campaign but we have not made a final decision," Matthew Schweich, the deputy director of South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, said.

Were the petition process to succeed, 2024 would be the third election in a row where South Dakotans could consider a measure legalizing cannabis for adult use.

It’s that near-nonstop campaigning that convinced Rep. Fred Deutsch, of Florence — who helped lead the opposition to the cannabis measure — to submit a proposed amendment that would require at least one intervening general election between when voters last rejected a proposed amendment and when they can next consider a “substantially similar” amendment.

Passing Deutsch’s amendment would require approval from both chambers of the state legislature and the support of a majority of voters statewide in the coming general election.

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“The voters just said no, can't we respect their will for a little bit? This is not about marijuana, that's just the issue that brought it forward,” Deutsch said, pointing out that the proposed law would apply equally to any issue, “right or left.”

However, it will be back to the drawing board for Deutsch, as the House State Affairs committee, a group dominated by moderate House Republicans, knocked down Deutsch’s proposal, tabling the proposal indefinitely by a 10-2 vote.

The committee’s concerns revolved mainly around the wording of “substantially similar,” a somewhat vague term they say would tie up nearly any amendment redo in countless lawsuits.

The determination in the proposal as written would have fallen to the attorney general, though a minor thread of discussion on the committee centered on whether that role would be better served by the secretary of state.

“The secretary of state or attorney general could do it one way or the other, but substantially similar is the one that I hang up on,” Rep. Roger Chase of Huron said. “And I just don't know where we can go to determine, for anybody to determine, substantially similar levels for initiated measures or constitutional amendments.”

Rep. Jon Hansen, of Dell Rapids, one of two votes against defeating the bill, downplayed those worries, pointing out that laws often hinge on the judgment of often vague terms.

“When you're dealing with constitutional provisions, there are just words like unreasonable and substantially similar that are necessary,” Hansen said.

While the proposed revision presented to the committee only applied to constitutional amendments rather than ballot measures like the 2022 adult-use cannabis petition, he told Forum News Service a separate bill yet to be submitted dealt with ballot measures.

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However, that ship has sailed, he said.

For Schweich, it's good news.

"I think the proposed amendment would significantly compromise the constitutional ballot initiative rights of the people of South Dakota," he said.

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Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or jharward@forumcomm.com.

Related Topics: SOUTH DAKOTAMARIJUANA
Jason Harward covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at jharward@forumcomm.com.
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