South Dakota Voters Pass Marijuana Measures
The federal government may still prohibit the drug, but South Dakota joins the many states who have legalized or decriminalized it.
This segment is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. This story by Lee Strubinger originally appeared on South Dakota Public Broadcasting.
South Dakota voters will decide in November whether to legalize recreational marijuana for adults over 21. The constitutional amendment would also allow medical marijuana use and industrial hemp.
If the measure passes, supporters say the industry could raise millions in tax revenue. Opponents say legalization could increase impaired driving.
Since 2017, nearly 3,750 South Dakotans faced charges and convictions for marijuana-related offenses. More than 200 served time in jail or the state penitentiary.
Those behind legalization efforts say that costs the state too much money.
Brendan Johnson is the former US Attorney for South Dakota and the president of South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws.
Johnson says marijuana convictions have serious ramifications.
“It’s harder to get housing, it’s harder to get into education, it’s harder to get a job,” Johnson says. “Because in South Dakota and too many places, still, it’s a scarlet letter. And that takes people off of—who should be good, tax paying citizens and it makes that so they’re not. They’re not going to be able to support their families as they otherwise would have been able to.”
Instead of criminalizing pot use, Johnson says the state should regulate and tax the industry. The Legislative Research Council says that could raise about $30 million dollars a year. The tax revenue would be split between state schools and the general fund.
The ballot measure would allow South Dakotans over 21 to possess up to one ounce of marijuana, and grow up to six plants for personal use. Local government could ban marijuana dispensaries in any community.
South Dakota is one of five states with a marijuana ballot measure this year. Thirty-three states have approved medical marijuana use. Recreational marijuana is already legal in eleven states, plus Washington D.C. However, the federal government still considers cannabis a schedule 1 controlled substance.
Brendan Johnson calls this constitutional amendment measure one of the strictest in the country.
“Every state that has passed this, which states has repealed it? Right. None,” Johnson says.
Not everyone finds legal recreational marijuana a popular idea.
“Any substance used to alter your brains is not necessarily good for you,” says Captain Tony Harrison, with the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office. “To legalize another one is a concern for me as a parent, as a community member, as an officer and as everything else.”
Harrison is a former drug interdiction officer and spent decades busting people for drug trafficking, including marijuana. He says voters should look to Colorado to understand what can happen when marijuana becomes legal.
He points to data statistics from the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. That’s a federal program designed to track and reduce drug use. It reports traffic deaths involving marijuana use have increased by 109 percent.
“You can’t smoke pot and drive better,” Harrison says. “It’s not possible. For anyone who says they drive better high than when I do drunk. I wouldn’t hang my hat on that statement, that’s not good.”
Some Colorado officials say it’s hard to pin the increase in traffic deaths on pot use. The state has also seen a major population boom since legalization eight years ago.
“Just because marijuana is legal doesn’t mean that all of the sudden people are going to start driving high,”
says Sam Cole, a traffic safety manager for the Colorado Department of Transportation. “People have been driving high ever since cars and marijuana existed together.”
Cole says last year, 49 fatalities involved someone who was at or above Colorado’s legal intoxication level for marijuana. That’s eight percent of fatal crashes.
The Colorado Department of Health reports the state has seen a four percent increase in marijuana impaired driving within two to three hours after use. The study has a three percent margin of error.
Cole says that’s not a big increase since legalization, but the number is significant.
“I think it’s important, whether or not a state legalizes marijuana, that they do outreach, education and enforcement around the issue of stoned driving,” Cole adds.
That’s because there are huge gaps in our understanding about how much and how long marijuana impairs a driver’s judgment.
Dr. Cinnamon Bidwell is an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder. She says there’s a standard with alcohol that’s clearly linked to impairment and driving risk. Officer can determine a driver’s intoxication with a breathalyzer.
Bidwell says there are a lot of big question marks with pot.
“With cannabis, there’s a development of tolerance in certain types of users,” Bidwell says. “When you try to look at blood levels and link with impairment, it differs between and occasional user and a regular user.”
States that have legalized cannabis have set an impairment standard for the level of THC in a person’s blood. THC is the psychoactive compound in marijuana that makes people feel high. The limit is five nanograms per million of THC in a blood sample. But, Bidwell says that metric is not perfect.
“We know that medicinal users, or people who use regularly, might just be walking around with that level of THC in the blood. They would have a level of tolerance that wouldn’t necessarily be indicative of impairment for that type of user,” Bidwell says. “However, occasional users or other types of user may have impairment at that blood level or lower.”
Bidwell says intoxication also depends on how people ingest cannabis–whether they eat it or smoke it–and the time it takes to feel high.
She says there are still many unanswered questions, partly because of the federal prohibition on marijuana. That still restricts pot use in the majority of states. It also limits the way researchers are able to study the chemistry of the plant.
Lee Strubinger is a politics and public policy reporter with South Dakota Public Broadcasting in Rapid City, South Dakota.