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071215-nws-marijuanahistory (copy)

New Approach South Dakota plans on gathering signatures for a referendum in 2018 to allow the sale and use of recreational marijuana. 

Journal file

The push to legalize medical marijuana in South Dakota last year targeted voters with a plea for compassion for the sick.

Now, a new push to legalize recreational use of the drug in South Dakota will target something much different — tax revenue and jobs. 

New Approach South Dakota will submit the proposal for an initiated measure to go to a statewide vote on the 2018 ballot. The group will submit the proposal to the attorney general's office early next week, and it plans to begin gathering signatures after his explanation is released. A separate measure reviving the medical marijuana issue has also been submitted for the statewide ballot process.

The group says the tax revenues that could be generated if the measure passed would create millions for South Dakota's education system and for general government spending.

Melissa Mentele, a leader of New Approach South Dakota, says marijuana is a $6 billion dollar industry in the county and South Dakota is missing out.

"Cannabis legalization is a self-sustaining industry that brings thousands of jobs in the ag industry, farming, manufacturing, retail, tourism and the health care industry — skilled jobs that South Dakota desperately needs."

Mentele said a notary error was the reason the medical marijuana measure failed to qualify for the statewide ballot in 2016, even though the group got more than 16,000 signatures. She said this drive would be different for both the recreational and medical measures. 

"We have learned many lessons from our last petition drive, the most important one being: Check and double-check your notary and seal," Mentele said in an email.

Mentele said most of the interest for the medical marijuana referendum came from voters 50 years or older, but she expects interest for recreational use to come from a younger demographic. 

"We feel very optimistic about this petition drive," she said. 

Seven states and the District of Columbia allow the sale and use of recreational marijuana. California, Nevada, Maine and Massachusetts all voted in favor in November. Arizona voted it down. Colorado is the closest state to South Dakota where recreational pot is legal.

Early adopters have used marijuana taxes as a source of significant tax revenue for governmental coffers. 

Last year, marijuana sales in Colorado totaled more than $1 billion, and the state collected more than $150 million in taxes and fees from those sales.

"South Dakota, with our beautiful state, unlimited outdoor recreational opportunities, hunters, and bikers during Sturgis, has the potential to bring in millions in tax revenue," Mentele said. 

The South Dakota measure would set an excise tax on marijuana that would include $50 per ounce on marijuana flowers, or buds, for buyers. Other taxes would apply to buying immature plants and other parts of the marijuana plant. 

But the proposed ballot measure will surely face opposition from top government and law enforcement officials in South Dakota.

Tony Venhuizen, chief of staff for Gov. Dennis Daugaard, said the governor opposes the legalization of marijuana and even a potential sales tax revenue boost would not change his mind on the issue. 

"The governor does not believe expanding drug use is a good idea for South Dakota," Venhuizen said in an email. 

The recreational measure, titled "An Act to Regulate and Tax Marijuana Like Alcohol," would allow a person 21 years or older to buy and possess marijuana or marijuana products up to 1 ounce or less at a time.

It would also allow for the cultivation of up to six immature marijuana plants per person and would set up rules for cultivation facilities and establishments to sell the drug. 

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This measure would provide for tax money to be doled out every three months to a variety of state agencies. Forty percent would be distributed to the South Dakota Department of Education to retain and recruit educators.

"We lose brilliant, bright, engaged educators due to the inability to properly compensate them for educating the future of South Dakota," Mentele said. "Every board member, coordinator and administrator for New Approach South Dakota is a parent, and this is an issue very near and dear to our hearts."

Other tax distribution would include 20 percent to the Department of Health for drug and alcohol abuse programs and for a public education campaign about the risks of drugs and alcohol. Thirty percent will be distributed to the general fund, and the final 10 percent would go to South Dakota law enforcement for training, detection dogs and education programs to aid youth diversion. 

Section 26 of the measure lays out provisions on the sale and use of recreational marijuana. It would allow recreational use in public places and would not allow the drug to be used while operating a moving vehicle. Municipalities would be allowed to prohibit the operation of marijuana stores and cultivation facilities but only through a public vote. 

If the measure is passed, section 25 would also commute the sentences of offenders who had been convicted or are charged with nonviolent marijuana offenses before the measure was passed. 

"We are not doing our state and its residents any favors by imprisoning people for nonviolent cannabis crimes," Mentele said. "The savings alone on the court and judicial system is millions of dollars."

But Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom sharply disagrees with that assessment. "That is bad idea and a bad plan," Thom said.

He questioned what would happen if an offender had taken a plea deal and only a marijuana charge was left on the record.

"They may have plead out of a much larger charge and we wouldn't know it," Thom said. "If we are going to throw open the jail doors and call it a victory, we are going to have problems."

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