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South Dakota Residents Still Can't Buy Marijuana

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

South Dakota voters surprised the country when they voted to legalize medical and recreational marijuana last November. But nine months later, South Dakotans still cannot purchase legal cannabis. One person standing in the way is Republican Governor Kristi Noem, who often markets her state as a home for freedom. South Dakota Public Broadcasting's Lee Strubinger has this report.

LEE STRUBINGER, BYLINE: Bill Stocker is not your typical marijuana reform advocate. He retired from both the Marine Corps and the Sioux Falls Police Department.

BILL STOCKER: I have 37 years in uniform. And I am a disabled veteran.

STRUBINGER: Stocker says law enforcement is stretched too thin, that it shouldn't be focused on marijuana. Instead, he says law enforcement should focus on heavily addictive drugs.

STOCKER: Fentanyl is the problem, not marijuana.

STRUBINGER: Stocker says that's why he supports marijuana legalization for South Dakotans and for himself.

STOCKER: I pay my taxes. I'm a registered voter. I do my due diligence. I'm a patriot. I have pain. I don't want to do opioids.

STRUBINGER: Stocker says the only thing that takes care of his pain is marijuana in the form of edibles. And he was counting on that after voters approved placing medical and recreational marijuana legalization into the state constitution, a cause he campaigned for.

But South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, a nationally rising Republican star, has been resistant to cannabis reform since she took office, including opposing industrial hemp legalization during her first two years. Stocker voted for Noem when she ran for governor in 2018. And he says he's disappointed she's come between voters like him and marijuana legalization.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KRISTI NOEM: I don't think anybody got smarter smoking pot.

STRUBINGER: And she's backing a lawsuit to overturn the voter-approved measure on constitutional grounds. The case is awaiting a state Supreme Court decision. Noem has said the state's voters made a bad decision when approving the constitutional amendment. But a majority of Americans are not on Noem's side. According to a recent Pew Research survey, 60% of Americans say marijuana should be legal for medical and recreational use.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHUCK SCHUMER: Even South Dakota, one of the most conservative states in America - a majority voted to legalize adult recreational use of marijuana.

STRUBINGER: That national support is something that U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer hopes to capitalize on. He's pushing to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCHUMER: If South Dakota can do it, the Senate should be able to do it.

STRUBINGER: Fifty-five percent of South Dakota voters voted in favor of legalizing recreational pot in 2020. In 2018, it was just 51% of voters who voted to elect Kristi Noem for governor. A lot has changed since she first ran, including her increased stature following her hands-off approach to the coronavirus pandemic. Noem has lost at least one vote in retired police officer Bill Stocker.

STOCKER: I will not vote for her. Matter of fact, if there is a good candidate running against her in '22, I will not only support that candidate. I will actively campaign for that candidate.

STRUBINGER: No one has announced a challenge to Governor Noem yet. But it's safe to assume cannabis will be a major part of their platform. For NPR News, I'm Lee Strubinger in Rapid City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.