Opponents to South Dakota cannabis legalization making most of a 'fortunate' second try
Jim Kinyon, the executive director of Catholic Social Services in Rapid City, has taken the lead on opposing Initiated Measure 27, which would legalize cannabis for adult use. Though Kinyon and several others stayed on the sidelines in the 2020 battle over cannabis, the passage and subsequent overturning of Amendment A has given them another shot to make the case for legalization.
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — In 2020, Jim Kinyon watched from the sidelines as South Dakotans voted to legalize cannabis for adult use.
“I wasn't involved,” Kinyon told Forum News Service. “I'm really embarrassed to admit that. I thought there would be no way in the world that recreational marijuana would ever pass in the state of South Dakota.”
But just one year after Amendment A passed with 54% of the vote, the South Dakota Supreme Court ruled that it dealt with more than one subject, nixing the nascent law and giving Kinyon a do-over.
“We have a great opportunity, fortunately, because of some leadership, to look at this question again,” Kinyon said. “Many of us have gotten to our feet.”
This cycle, Kinyon, the executive director of Catholic Social Services in Rapid City and a mental health counselor, is leading an all-out opposition to Initiated Measure 27 as the head of Protecting South Dakota Kids. As the name suggests, his messaging has focused on the potential for cannabis use to lead to substance abuse issues when consumed by teenagers, which he claims is a natural by-product of legalizing the substance for adults.
Despite proponents of IM 27 contending his arguments are riddled with falsehoods, Kinyon’s willingness to criss-cross the state delivering a harrowing message of the potential dangers of legalized marijuana seems to be making headway, leading to a dead-even race less than three weeks before Election Day.
Opponents close the fundraising gap
David Owen laughs when asked about the “stark spending difference” in the 2020 campaign for cannabis legalization.
“Nicely understated,” he said.
Owen, the executive director for the South Dakota Chamber of Commerce, led the opposition to Amendment A in 2020, though he is not involved directly in this year’s campaign beyond the chamber’s name appearing in the opposing coalition.
His campaign was outspent more than six-fold .
This year, that monetary advantage for the proponents has largely dried up. New Approach PAC, a national organization that donated more than $1 million to South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws last cycle, has spent substantially less money nationwide this cycle, going from over $13 million in 2020 to just $177,000 this year.
“We are not flush with national cash the way we were in 2020 when we had very strong funding from national groups,” Matthew Schweich, the campaign manager for the proponents of Initiated Measure 27, told Forum News Service. “This is really a grassroots South Dakota campaign now.”
Kinyon has also painted his side as grassroots, deriding the proponents as “drug pushers” with backing from “out-of-state investors” set to profit from adult legalization.
“It's my aunts and uncles, grandmas and grandpas, next door neighbors,” Kinyon said of the people donating to his campaign.
Though campaign finance reports covering May through October will not be submitted until next week, estimates from the two sides of the ballot measure given to Forum News Service indicate a much closer financial race than the 2020 cycle.
Kinyon said his campaign would “well over double” the fundraising from the past cycle, which would come out to at least $600,000. Schweich estimated his haul in the same timeframe at over $500,000.
The potential financial advantage has reared its head in television spending. According to records filed to the Federal Communications Commission, opponents of the measure have outspent proponents on KELO-TV $92,800 to $57,140 in the month of October.
Still, those involved in the campaign trying to make cannabis legal for adult use say the lasting impact of the 2020 spending and the overturning of Amendment A can still be seen in conversations with voters.
“We've had individuals come up when we were doing the ballot petition process and say, ‘I didn't vote for it last time, but I believe in democracy and I believe that the will of the people should be respected,’” Ned Horsted, who worked for the 2020 campaign but is involved on a volunteer basis this year, told Forum News Service.
Kinyon’s messaging appears to be making headway
Through his career as a mental health professional, Kinyon can recount endless stories of the destructive nature of cannabis. In one, he was working in a group of twelve teenagers at the Juvenile Services Center in Rapid City.
According to Kinyon, they were in the juvenile system for violent crime or property crime. In the group, he asked through a secret ballot about what their first illegal drug had been.
“When I walked out, I opened the box,” Kinyon said. “All 12 of them identified that they started out with marijuana. This is a gateway drug.”
Kinyon points to the 2018-19 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which shows that nine of the top 10 states for cannabis use among those aged 12-17 have legalized adult-use cannabis. In that study, South Dakota ranked 47th in use rate in that age group.
“There is not one thing that the state of South Dakota could do to double our youth rate of marijuana use other than passing this bill,” Kinyon said.
But the proponents for measure 27 say Kinyon’s message is misleading. Schweich said the two sides actually have a common end goal.
“We both share the belief that it's not good for teenagers to use cannabis,” Schweich said. “Where we differ is the approach. They want to use a policy of prohibition that is clearly an abject failure.”
Schweich and his campaign counter Kinyon’s teenage use statistics with a full fact page of their own, referencing reports that teenage use in legal states has dropped since legalization. Kinyon takes issue with these statistics, saying some of them were “cherry-picked” through pandemic-era data with lower response rates.
On top of misleading statistics, Schweich feels the opposing campaign has crossed a line in its television advertisement, which says his campaign is trying to “legalize drugs.”
“I think it's wrong. I don't think it's the type of thing that we want in our political system,” Schweich said. “This is so much of the problem in our country, that people want to bend the rules and be dishonest to win. I'd rather lose with integrity and honesty.”
Still, Kinyon’s persistence appears to have moved the needle. The most recent statewide polling from South Dakota State puts the electorate at 47-45 against the measure, a dead heat within the margin of error in the final stretch of the race.
A different, internal poll from the proponents shared with Forum News Service had the electorate at 54-43 in favor when factoring in leaning.
“We've learned not to put the tobacco industry in charge of tobacco regulation. Same with alcohol and opioids," Kinyon said. "I fear that we're going to learn the hard way about letting the cannabis industry write our cannabis laws. And the cost of that is human."