Two men moving from Washington state to Ohio were traveling through South Dakota with legally purchased medical marijuana when a Highway Patrol officer nabbed them and charged them with possession.
To avoid jail time, the men pleaded guilty in July to felonies and paid a $2,500 fine.
Now, five months later, possessing marijuana in small amounts has been legalized by voters in Washington and nearby Colorado,which means more people with pot will likely be traveling through South Dakota and risking arrest in a state with some of the toughest possession and sale laws in the Midwest.
Rapid City Police Chief Steve Allender said the legalization of marijuana in Colorado, which is just a six-hour drive from Rapid City, will not affect how his officers enforce the state's drug laws.
"We are going to subject them to South Dakota law. I don't believe it will be a good defense that they came from Colorado or Washington," he said recently.
Spearfish attorney Matthew Kinney said he expects that more people will be bringing marijuana to or through South Dakota since more than 54 percent of Colorado's voters approved Amendment 64, which allows the possession of up to one ounce of pot for anyone 21 or older. It also allows for the sale of pot at retail stores.
"If they are going to go through I-90 to go to Minneapolis, they are not going to think about South Dakota law," Kinney said of those who choose to travel through western South Dakota.
Marijuana trafficking likely won't increase due to Colorado's new law, Kinney said. However, pot smokers may think they are allowed to have the smaller amounts with them or that the chances of getting caught will be slim.
"For personal use amounts of marijuana, then the answer is yes, the court system is going to be affected," Kinney said.
Whether Colorado and Washington voters were right to legalize recreational marijuana use is less important now to law enforcement in nearby states than how to deal with the possible fallout.
In Wyoming, law enforcement officers are worried that college students in Laramie, just an hour from Fort Collins, Colo., will make pot runs to their neighboring state.
South Dakota has the benefit of a one-state buffer from the Colorado border, but Allender still expects smokers to carry it through the state.
Capt. Kevin Karley with the state Highway Patrol said there is no way to know what impact legalization in Colorado will have on South Dakota. His officers, however, have made a number of large-scale pot arrests in the past year involving out-of-staters.
In South Dakota, possession of 2 ounces or less is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison and a $2,000 fine. Any more than that is a felony that can bring a prison sentence of up to 15 years. Selling more than half an ounce of marijuana is a felony carrying a mandatory 30-day sentence. Any marijuana found in a car leads to a 90-day suspended license for a first offense.
Emmett Reistroffer was on the front lines pushing for legalized medical marijuana in South Dakota in 2010 as part of the Coalition for Compassion. The measure failed convincingly in 2010 after just missing passage in 2006.
"They will know where it is grown, where it is sold, how much money it makes and who is responsible for paying taxes," Reistroffer said about Colorado's new law.
He doesn't expect legalization in Colorado to lead to more trafficking in South Dakota.
"Our own black market for marijuana is the only contributing factor for marijuana coming into our state," he said.
The Colorado and Washington experiments will provide a test case worth watching by South Dakota lawmakers, Reistroffer said. If South Dakota were to enact less restrictive marijuana laws in the future, he said it should do so in a way that best fits the culture of the state.
"What I do support is the idea of gaining control and regulation of marijuana, either medical or for all adults," Reistroffer said. "We are overly punitive and counterproductive in arresting them and jailing them.
"We have the opportunity to learn from those states, and I hope we don't wait 10 years. If we are the last to change we will be the last black market."