Pro-legal weed group touring state to combat “misinformation” on IM 27

"Yes on 27" leader says alcohol is more dangerous than cannabis
Published: Oct. 12, 2022 at 9:44 PM CDT

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - The group behind the effort to legalize recreational marijuana in South Dakota is hitting the road.

With 27 days before the Nov. 8 election, the “Yes on 27″ contingency announced on Wednesday a 10-day tour of the state.

The “YES on 27″ statewide tour will kick off in Brookings on Saturday and will include stops in 18 cities, including Watertown, Aberdeen, Sisseton, Huron, Mitchell, Yankton, Wagner, Pierre, Eagle Butte, Rapid City, and Belle Fouche. The tour will finish in Pine Ridge on October 24th — the last day people in South Dakota can register to vote in the election.

The campaign director for “South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws” said in a Wednesday press conference that the two main purposes of the tour are to get more people to register to vote, and to educate people about legal cannabis.

Matthew Schweich, who has been leading pro-marijuana campaigns in South Dakota and other states for eight years, said legal cannabis laws are working in the 20 states that have them — citing the fact that only one state of 20 has taken steps toward repealing those laws — and it is time to spread the word and counter the attacks against IM 27.

That one state out of 20, of course, was South Dakota.

”The reason why I hope you’ll come talk to us is because there’s a lot of misinformation out there right now, and I think that what we’re seeing in 2022 is a much more misleading opposition campaign than what we saw in 2020,” Schweich said.

That was when 54 percent of South Dakota voters said “yes” to Amendment A, a similar measure to IM 27. It was deemed unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court — a ruling Schweich called “deeply flawed” — after it was challenged by Governor Kristi Noem, an act Schweich classified as using “taxpayer money to overturn the will of the people.”

Schweich used part of Wednesday’s presser to announce the findings of an internal poll of 724 people that found that same number — 54% — of respondents favored IM 27. That poll was conducted by FM3, a firm that has been used to conduct polls for recreational marijuana legalization in other states.

The campaign director said the poll was done in response to a statewide poll released by South Dakota Newswatch that showed opposite numbers — over 54 percent opposing legalization to about 43 percent in favor.

Wednesday’s presser came two days after the anti-legal cannabis group “Protecting South Dakota Kids” released an television ad taking a torpedo at IM 27. Schweich said the ad should not be allowed on airwaves because of a “fraudulent” statement.

“The ad says that Measure 27 legalizes drugs, plural,” Schweich said. “The ad never mentions the words cannabis or marijuana or weed. If you did not see the ad — if you weren’t looking at the TV or you were visually impaired — you would have no way of knowing Measure 27 legalizes cannabis.”

The commercial says IM 27 would “legalize drugs that cause depression and suicide. Drugs that put dangerous users on our roads, hurting those who are most vulnerable.”

While Schweich said he is a defender of Freedom of Speech, “Freedom of Speech does not protect fraudulent statements. It does not protect misrepresenting objective facts.”

Dakota News Now reached out to “Protecting South Dakota Kids” offering them to speak about the ad Schweich referred, but the group did not respond. Schweich said his group will be releasing new TV ads “based in facts” soon.

Asked why he thinks there is still such a concerted and well-funded effort to prevent the legalization of marijuana in South Dakota and other states, Schweich referred to a century of “prohibition” that goes beyond politics and law enforcement, and into society and culture with “reefer madness and propaganda.”

“They’ve convinced people and planted seeds in their mind that (marijuana use) was a hallmark of degeneracy,” Schweich said. “You were a lesser person for using cannabis. And those types of efforts were serious and sustained, and well-funded, and leave a lasting legacy.

“There’s a lot of people who have an outdated mindset on cannabis. They see it as very, very dangerous. But the reality is, it’s not dangerous, and it’s safer than alcohol.”

Alcohol is worse for the human body, Schweich said, because it can kill you if you put enough of it in your body.

“You can’t do that with cannabis,” Schweich said.

“(Alcohol) is more likely to make you reckless. It’s more likely to make you violent. I’ve talked to law enforcement (about this). In terms of domestic violence incidents, alcohol is involved overwhelmingly. Cannabis, almost never.”

At that point, a retired Sioux Falls Police Department officer who was among the “Yes on 27″ proponents standing behind Schweich interrupted and said, “never.” A reporter asked Stocker to come to the podium to dig in more about his own dealing with weed arrests, and why he is an advocate of legalized cannabis.

“Marijuana is not the issue in my mind as a police officer,” Bill Stocker said. “People possessing marijuana or people who are high on marijuana — never an issue. Never! Totally compliant! People that drink, people that do meth. They’re the issue.”

Recently, both Mayor Paul TenHaken and Minnehaha County Sheriff Mike Milstead spoke out against IM 27, lumping marijuana with other harmful and illegal drugs like meth and fentanyl. Marijuana is among the drugs his sheriff’s office sees the most on service calls, according to Milstead, adding that it is not uncommon for marijuana to be at the root of violent crime and gang activity.

“I certainly would keep marijuana in that top three of what drugs we’re encountering and dealing with on a regular basis, sometimes with people that are armed and posing a danger to our community,” Milstead said.

Stocker said the mayor and sheriff are losing sight that possession of marijuana is still a Class 1 misdemeanor and is punishable to a year in jail in the county jail and a $2,000 fine. That is the same penalty as simple domestic assault, protection violation, and Driving While Impaired laws “1, 2, 3, and maybe 4,” Stocker said.

The former law enforcement officer then made a tiny circle with his right thumb and pointer finger, his eyes widening.

“We’re saying this much marijuana is the same as those crimes? Stop,” Stocker said. “We’re arresting South Dakota youth, 24 to 26. That’s who we’re arresting. We’re hanging a Class 1 misdemeanor on these kids. It needs to stop.”

One of “South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws” reasons for mounting another legal recreational cannabis measure is to reduce what the group calls “wasting law enforcement resources.”

Part of the anti-legal cannabis campaign, as displayed in the recent “Protecting South Dakota Kids” ad, is driver impairment and the risk of injury and death while driving under the influence of marijuana. A recent New York Times article found that “there’s limited data on how marijuana impacts driving performance, but experts urge caution before getting behind the wheel.”

That same article found that during the past decade, car accidents involving cannabis have been rising, and recreational use of the drug continues to climb. But it also said “while there’s a dearth of data directly comparing the hazards of driving while high versus driving while drunk, the research that does exist suggests that marijuana may be less likely than alcohol to lead to deadly car crashes.”

Here are some other topics Schweich touched on during the nearly 30-minute presser:

More on the “Protecting South Dakota Kids” ads and keeping cannabis away from kids

“I have the same goal as them,” Schweich said. “I don’t want kids having access to cannabis. Where we differ is the approach. They want to use failed policy and prohibition that has not succeeded even though we’ve tried it for over a century. Many kids and teens would report it is easier to get cannabis than alcohol. So, for me, getting cannabis out of the hands of kids is about shifting cannabis out of unregulated market and putting it behind counters of licensed taxpaying businesses.”

Schweich cited a July 2022 Colorado Dept. of Public Health and Environment study that showed a drop in teen cannabis usage, and a 2021 Journal of American Medicine Association finding that in 10 legalized states, there was no evidence that legalization is driving teen usage.

“If we want to reduce exposure to more dangerous drugs in our society and we want to make it harder for kids and teens to access cannabis, then we should control and legalize cannabis,” Schweich said.

On notion that the black market would thrive if recreational marijuana was legalized and sold in dispensaries

In September, TenHaken referenced a recent Los Angeles times report about violent crime in California, where recreational cannabis has legal for eight years.

“It’s very concerning,” TenHaken said. “Why would you, as someone with a legal cannabis license, how can you compete against someone who says, ‘I’m going to bypass the laws, I’m going to bypass the permits, I’m going to bypass all the other things and just grow illegally, I don’t have to pay the taxes?’ That’s why the black market is stronger in places where cannabis is legal.”

Schweich’s reponse:

“People don’t want to go to the illicit market. They’re forced to. So, the idea that we’re going to legalize cannabis and all of a sudden now there’s going to be more illicit sales, I don’t understand that at all. I think that what they’re misinterpreting is the fact that in all legalization states, the illicit market does not immediately disappear. So, they cherry pick instances that these people in Colorado with this big, unregulated grow, or these people up in Oregon with their unregulated grow.

“What needs to be acknowledged is this is a century-old illicit market. It’s embedded in our society. To expect it to disappear immediately is completely unreasonable. It was always going to take time, a transition period, to replace the illicit market with a regulated market, and that is happening in Colorado and all these legalization states. Over time, the illicit market is getting smaller.

“What we’re doing is depriving criminals and cartels a very dependable source of revenue, and weakening them. So, I really don’t understand how this initiative is going to strengthen the illicit market in Sioux Falls or anywhere in South Dakota. It’s competition for the illicit market, and in time it will succeed and it will win.”

On the difficulty South Dakotans have obtaining medical marijuana cards

In 2020, the voters of South Dakota passed Initiated Measure 26 and approved medical cannabis. Since then, the South Dakota Medical Cannabis program has been launched and is operational.

The state’s new website says “The Departments of Health and Education have delivered a regulatory program that ensures the safety of patients, students, and the public in this new industry.”

But Schweich said access to medical cannabis is too difficult.

“For many, it is a geographic issue,” Schweich said. “If you live in a rural area, you might not be able to get to a doctor for your recommendation. If you’re living on a lower income or you have dependence, you might not have the money to get a recommendation and then get a card.”

And veterans who can only afford health care from the Veterans Administration can’t get recommendations from their doctors, Schweich noted.

“The idea that we’re going to tell a veteran who has chronic pain or PTSD, who’s in a financially difficult situation, ‘sorry, you’ve got to wait until the federal government catches up, (but) in the meantime, you’re a criminal,’ when this is a person who served our country — who has health conditions as a result of that service,’ that’s one of the strongest reasons to pass this initiative.”

Twice, Schweich said, legislators have “come after” IM 26, which legalized medical marijuana.

“I don’t think this fight is going away, and Measure 27 ensures a bedrock of access for any patient (age) 21 and over,” Schweich said, “and we won’t need to rely on the affirmative defense. Patients will be guaranteed protection, and at bare minimum, that’s what we should have. And that’s what 27 would give us.”

On the statewide tour stopping in a few cities with heavy Native American population

Schweich has spent three years campaigning for legal marijuana in South Dakota and has met with a lot of Native Americans, he said, and feels like he’ll have strong support from them.

“I think there’s a lot of other groups that have done a lot of work for many years on voter registration in those communities,” Schweich said. “Yes, I believe Native American voters are going to be on our side and it’s important that we as a campaign go to them and talk to them and not just expect for them to listen to us from afar, and show that respect.”