South Dakota approaches July 1 deadline for medical marijuana program — with work still to do

A medical marijuana program voted into law by voters last November will officially begin on Thursday, July 1 — though official stress cannabis will remain unavailable at state-approved dispensaries likely until the summer of 2022.

Cannabis consultant Jonathan Hunt talks about a grow farm and dispensary at the Flandreau Indian Reservation in eastern South Dakota on Tuesday, June 29, 2021. State law legalizes medical cannabis beginning on July 1 -- but officials don't expect to see state-approved facilities (excluding those on tribal lands) selling product to cardholders until 2022. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)

FLANDREAU, S.D. — The eve before medicinal marijuana becomes legal in South Dakota, residents are largely at a loss for the details of a program the state has tried to stand up in a matter of weeks, following the collapse of a delay in the legislature.

"What exactly becomes legal on July 1?" asked Alex from Sioux Falls, at the outset of a public forum held on Monday, June 28, by the South Dakota Department of Health .

The telephone town hall was billed as an opportunity for "public input" on the state's rollout, and, fittingly, callers gave DOH officials plenty to chew on about a state law approved by 70% of voters and still standing after an alternative legislative plan failed in the session's final days. That plan, which Gov. Kristi Noem blessed, invoked the pandemic emergency as reason for a 6-month, even year-long delay.

"There's no other state that has stood up a medical marijuana program this fast before — except Oklahoma, and it's a mess," said Gov. Noem at an early March press conference .

Some officials within her own executive branch might be quick to say the governor was right.


Last week, DOH released 105-pages of draft rules — required to be written according to the terms of Initiated Measure 26 — laying out everything in the state's medicinal marijuana program from the cost ($5,000) to buy a license to sell marijuana to the required parking lots outside dispensaries.

And then this week, they faced voters.

The questions on the first of two town halls on Monday evening hosted by DOH saw residents raising questions from low-income availability for medicinal marijuana cards (which can be applied for through DOH later this coming fall) to why the state won't necessarily recognize cards from other states.

One caller — identified as "Kevin" — noted conceal-and-carry permits, as well as driver's licenses worked across state lines, "how come medical marijuana cards aren't good across state lines?"

"That's a good question, Kevin," said Kim Malsam-Rysdon, DOH Secretary. "Every state program is somewhat unique."

Largely, what happens this coming Thursday — the law's July 1 effective date — is mostly symbolic. South Dakota residents won't be able to possess marijuana grown, whether in gummy or flower or any number of enumerated forms, until likely next summer. Doctors in South Dakota must first certify (state officials keep stressing it's not a "prescription") medicinal marijuana for a debilitating condition. Then, a patient must apply through DOH. Finally, a cardholder would purchase product from a dispensary legally operating in South Dakota.

Another legal provision effective Thursday will be an affirmative defense that those possessing marijuana may invoke in local court if charged with a crime — such a defense, said an assistant state's attorney from Pennington County last month , would render feckless almost any prosecution of a person over small amounts of marijuana.

On Tuesday, Jun 29, at a facility on the Flandreau Indian Reservation that plans to open Thursday, Jonathan Hunt, a longtime cannabis consultant who has stood up dispensaries in various states, including Colorado, told Forum News Service he didn't see any big hiccups in South Dakota's rollout thus far.


"This is how it often goes," said Hunt.

Standing by him, Melissa Mentele, the architect of IM 26 and the companion Amendment A constitutional measure that legalized recreational marijuana use but has been blocked by a circuit judge, also agreed she found the rules laid out by DOH "reasonable."

"It's all stuff that's right there in the law," said Mentele.

And a lot still needs to be done. The draft rules will come before a legislative rules committee this coming September. Rules promulgated by the Department of Education on cannabis use on campuses were rejected earlier this month by that same committee.

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