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Law enforcement putting less emphasis on marijuana arrests at rally
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Law enforcement putting less emphasis on marijuana arrests at rally

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VanDewater Merwin

Sturgis Police Chief Geody VanDewater, left, and Meade County Sheriff Ron Merwin speak during a Wednesday news briefing in Sturgis.

STURGIS | Meade County Sheriff Ron Merwin said one of his officers experienced a first during this year’s Sturgis motorcycle rally.

A man arrested on an undisclosed charge and taken to the Meade County Jail was also found to possess a small amount of marijuana.

But because the man carried a valid medical marijuana card from his home state, jail officers returned the pot to the man’s personal belongings, instead of placing it in evidence.

“It was strange, but because he had a medical card, even from another state, we have to honor those,” Merwin said Monday.

The changing landscape of drug enforcement, particularly involving the use of medical and recreational marijuana, is evident during this week’s 81st Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

Through the first five days of the rally, which began on Aug. 6, Sturgis police officers have made 15 arrests for possession of marijuana or drug paraphernalia as of 6 a.m. Wednesday. That compares to 61 arrests through the same period in 2020.

The Meade County Sheriff’s Office recorded nine misdemeanor drug arrests, compared to 14 a year ago.

State voters overwhelmingly approved separate measures legalizing both medical and recreational marijuana in last November’s general election.

The personal use of marijuana, or cannabis, to provide relief from certain medical conditions became legal in the state on July 1 through voter approval of Initiated Measure 26, but the state is still formulating regulations regarding medical marijuana, with the issuance of permit cards for state residents still weeks away.

Gov. Kristi Noem challenged the constitutionality of Amendment A, legalizing recreational marijuana, in January, with the issue currently before the state Supreme Court.

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In the meantime, county state’s attorneys and law enforcement officers are in a state of limbo on whether to enforce and prosecute the still-illegal recreational use of marijuana through laws that may no longer be on the books within a few months.

Meade County State’s Attorney Michele Bordewyk is prosecuting possession of small amounts of THC-laced marijuana edibles as a Class 2 misdemeanor and honoring medical cards issued out-of-state.

“With medical marijuana now being legal, if someone’s got a medical claim for it, you can’t prosecute it,” Bordewyk said.

The call to make an arrest is generally up to law enforcement, she said.

“It’s kind of tough, especially for the officers on the side of the road who are trying to protect the public and make these decisions,” Bordewyk said Wednesday.

Merwin said his deputies are generally looking past personal-use amounts of marijuana they encounter.

“If it’s a small amount, we’re just overlooking it and saying, ‘Hey, get rid of it,’” Merwin said. “If it’s big enough for us to worry about, then we’re arresting them.”

Sturgis Police Chief Geody VanDewater concurred. “We’re just addressing that with the paraphernalia citation,” he said. “If it’s a small amount, we’re not going to get too overly excited.”

VanDewater reiterated that like alcohol, consumption of marijuana is still illegal in a public place or in a vehicle.

Felony drug arrests by Sturgis police so far remain generally on par with previous years, down to 14 from 22 last year. The Sheriff’s Office had made 10 felony drug arrests so far, compared to seven last year.

“There’s a little meth and cocaine, but that’s typical,” Merwin said.

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