South Dakota High Court Won't Legalize Pot, Ruling Against 54 Percent Who Voted For It

The South Dakota Supreme Court dashed hopes for legalized recreational marijuana by upholding a lower court's ruling that nullified a voter-passed amendment to the state constitution, the Associated Press reported.

About 54 percent of South Dakota's voters approved the amendment last November, but Republican Governor Kristi Noem initiated a legal battle that concluded in the state's highest court on Wednesday.

Though Noem was against legalizing marijuana for recreational use on a social basis, her administration argued against the measure's constitutionality in court because of a technical issue. Constitutional amendments must only address one topic, but there were technically multiple in the voter-approved ballot measure, called Amendment A, the lawyers argued.

The South Dakota Supreme Court sided with the lawyers' argument in a 4-1 decision.

"It is clear that Amendment A contains provisions embracing at least three separate subjects, each with distinct objects or purposes," Chief Justice Steven Jensen wrote in the majority opinion, which determined that recreational marijuana, medical marijuana and hemp were each separate issues.

The legalization issue divided state Republicans, with some arguing that they must heed the voters' decision and standing firm against the legislation. Noem said in January that it was a "bad decision for the state of South Dakota" and that "I don't think anybody got smarter smoking pot."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

South Dakota Marijuana Law
The South Dakota Supreme Court has upheld a lower court's ruling that nullified a voter-passed amendment to the state constitution that would have legalized recreational marijuana use. Above, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem speaks during the Family Leadership Summit on July 16, 2021, in Des Moines, Iowa. Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo

About 54 percent of voters had approved the constitutional amendment last year. But Highway Patrol Superintendent Colonel Rick Miller sued on Noem's behalf. Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom also joined the lawsuit. The high court ruled that the law enforcement officers did not have standing to sue, but because Noem authorized Miller's suit, they treated it as if Noem brought the lawsuit herself.

Noem praised the decision, and noted that it would not change how she implements a separate, voter-passed law that legalizes medical marijuana. That law has already taken effect.

"South Dakota is a place where the rule of law and our Constitution matter, and that's what today's decision is about," she said in a statement. "We do things right, and how we do things matters just as much as what we are doing."

The state Supreme Court's decision upheld a circuit judge's ruling in February. Advocates for pot legalization appealed, arguing that the Supreme Court should dismiss the legal challenge because it overturned the will of voters and dampened their future ability to enact laws through the ballot box.

Matthew Schweich, the campaign director for South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, called the ruling "extremely flawed" and reliant on "a disrespectful assumption that South Dakota voters were intellectually incapable of understanding the initiative."

"The court has rejected common sense and instead used a far-fetched legal theory to overturn a law passed by over 225,000 South Dakota voters based on no logical or evidentiary support," he said in a statement.

Pot legalization is not going away in South Dakota. Marijuana advocates are trying to bring recreational marijuana back to voters next year through a ballot measure that would instruct the Legislature to legalize it. Lawmakers are also considering legalizing pot for adults in the upcoming legislative session.

Marijuana has become broadly accepted around the United States, with a Gallup Poll last year showing 68 percent of Americans favored legalization. South Dakota was among four states that month to approve recreational marijuana, along with New Jersey, Arizona and Montana. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have done so.

Cannabis Plant
The South Dakota Supreme Court dashed hopes for legalized recreational marijuana by upholding a lower court’s ruling that nullified a voter-passed amendment to the state constitution. Above, a cannabis plant that is close to harvest grows in a grow room at the Greenleaf Medical Cannabis facility in Richmond, Virginia, on June 17, 2021. Steve Helber/AP Photo