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South Dakota Senate removes 'medical purpose' defense from cannabis law

A provision tucked into Initiated Measure 26 allowed persons who don't have medical cannabis cards to defend themselves against punitive action for possessing certain amounts of cannabis by arguing they met some health conditions. One opponent called the provision "a rabbit in a hat."

Sen. Timothy Johns, R-Lead, argued in favor of a change to the state's medical cannabis law on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022.
Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service
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PIERRE, S.D. — One leading Senate Republican called the state's voter-approved medical cannabis law akin to a "magician's hat" filled with surprises, as the South Dakota Senate voted 25-10 to strip an affirmative defense for residents who possess medical cannabis but don't yet have a card.

"Why even have a law?" asked Sen. Timothy Johns, R-Lead, who rose to support Senate Bill 20 . "This is synonymous with a law that requires you to have motor vehicle insurance."

Under the text of Initiated Measure 26, which was approved by over 70% of voters in November of 2020, an individual without a card issued through the Department of Health can belatedly produce evidence to show they have a medical purpose for using and possessing cannabis should they face a criminal charge.

Sen. David Wheeler, R-Huron, called IM 26 — and all its sundry provisions — a new "philosophy" for the state of cannabis regulations adopted by the voters.

"If you have a bonafide medical need, we're not going to care anymore," Wheeler said. "We're not going to ... [treat you as] a criminal anymore."


But this remark drew Senate Pro Tempore Lee Schoenbeck, R-Watertown, from his chair, who characterized IM 26 — including 90-plus sub-sections — as "like a magician" who keeps pulling rabbits from a hat.

"It's like 27 of them," said Schoenbeck. "The major purpose was not to decriminalize medical marijuana."

Senate Bill 20 was one of a dozen or so measures drafted and approved by the summer interim study of lawmakers. The measure now goes to the House of Representatives.

Christopher Vondracek is the South Dakota correspondent for Forum News Service. Contact Vondracek at cvondracek@forumcomm.com , or follow him on Twitter: @ChrisVondracek .

The state's biggest political leaders have touted inbound migration, so-called "blue state refugees" who flooded South Dakota. But the biggest driver of partisan races this coming summer and fall appears to be a redistricting process, log-jamming Republicans in primaries and opening up new turf for Democrats.

Christopher Vondracek covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at cvondracek@forumcomm.com or follow him on Twitter at @ChrisVondracek.
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