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Easing federal marijuana rules: There’s still a long way to go • South Dakota Searchlight

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Easing federal marijuana rules: There’s still a long way to go • South Dakota Searchlight


Nearly three weeks after the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration proposed loosening a federal prohibition on marijuana, the next phases of policy fights over the drug’s status are starting to take shape.

Public comments, which the DEA is accepting on the proposal until mid-July, will likely include an analysis of the economic impact of more lenient federal rules.

Administrative law hearings, a venue for opponents to challenge executive branch decisions, will likely follow, with marijuana’s potential for abuse a possible issue.

Marijuana legalization measure validated for Nov. 5 election

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Congress, meanwhile, could act on multiple related issues, including banking access for state-legal marijuana businesses and proposals to help communities harmed by the decades of federal prohibition.

U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat from Oregon and longtime advocate for legalizing marijuana who’s retiring at the end of the year, is encouraging his colleagues to build on the administration’s action by taking up bills on those related issues.

The politics of the issue should favor action, even in the face of an upcoming campaign season that typically slows legislative action, Blumenauer said in a May 17 interview, noting the popularity of a more permissive approach to the drug.

“Congress may not do a lot between now and November, but they should,” the 14-term House member said. “Because it’s an election year, there’s no downside to being more aggressive.”

Economic impact

In a proposed rule published in the Federal Register last month, the DEA specifically asked commenters to weigh in on the economic impacts of moving the drug from Schedule I to the less-restrictive Schedule III list under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

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That will likely mean the agency will consider the impact of allowing state-legal marijuana businesses to deduct business expenses from their federal taxes, Mason Tvert, a partner at Denver-based cannabis policy and public affairs firm Strategies 64, said in an interview. Under current law, no deductions are allowed.

That issue is seen by advocates, including Blumenauer and fellow Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, who chairs the tax-writing U.S. Senate Finance Committee, as paramount for the industry.

Thousands of state-legal businesses struggle to earn a profit or operate at a loss under the current system, Blumenauer said.

Potential for abuse

The DEA typically looks at three factors when assessing how strictly to regulate a drug: its medicinal value, potential for abuse relative to other drugs and ability to cause physical addiction.

A 2023 analysis by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that looked at data from states where medicinal marijuana is legal showed that “there exists some credible scientific support for the medical use of marijuana.”

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That finding could lead DEA to look at other factors, Tvert said.

“The battleground that we’ll see will be around how we define potential for abuse,” he said.

Agencies split?

But the DEA proposed rule revealed a divided view among government agencies about the drug’s potential harms, Paul Armentano, the deputy director for the longtime leading advocacy group National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, told States Newsroom.

The text of the proposed rule shows “a lack of consensus” among HHS, the Attorney General’s Office and the Drug Enforcement Administration, he said.

“There are several points in the DEA’s proposed rule where they express a desire to see additional evidence specific to concerns that the agency has about the potential effects of cannabis, particularly as they pertain to abuse potential and potential harms,” Armentano said.

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“The HHS addresses those issues, but the DEA essentially says, ‘We’d like to see more information on it.’”

Kevin Sabat, the president and CEO of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, agreed that the DEA did not appear to agree with the HHS conclusion that medical uses exist.

The proposed rule “just brings up all these issues with the HHS’s determination and it basically invites comment on all those issues,” he said.

Administrative law hearing

Sabat’s group will also be petitioning for a DEA administrative hearing, he said. An administrative law judge could rule that the proposal should not go through or that it should be amended to remain stricter than the initial proposal described.

“We’re going to highlight the fact that, first of all, this does not have approved or accepted medical use,” he said.

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Still much unknown on how marijuana policies would change in states under Biden plan

Tvert said the accepted medical value question is likely not to be a major factor in an administrative law hearing. Several medical organizations and states that allow medicinal use have already endorsed its medicinal value, he said.

Instead, the focus will turn to the drug’s potential for abuse, he said.

“What will be critical is looking at cannabis relative to other substances that are currently II or III or not on the schedule, and determining whether cannabis should be on Schedule I when alcohol is not even on the schedules and ketamine is Schedule III.”

As of June 6, nearly 12,000 people had commented on the proposal in the 18 days since its publication.

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While opinion polls show that most Americans favor liberalizing cannabis laws — a Pew Research Center survey in March found 57% of U.S. adults favor full legalization while only 11% say it should be entirely illegal — the public comments so far represent a full spectrum of views on the topic.

“This rule is a horrible idea, this should remain in Schedule I,” one comment read. “Marijuana is a gateway drug and ruins lives.”

“There are no negative side effects to its use,” another commenter, who favored “fully” legalizing the substance, wrote. “Its not harmful. The only harm is what the government has done to me and America. Shame on the people that continue to oppose this. Seriously shame on anyone that would stand in the way of this change.”

Congressional action?

Blumenauer authored a memo last month on “the path forward” for reform as the rescheduling process plays out.

He listed four bills for Congress to consider this year.

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One, sponsored by House Democrats, would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substance Act schedule entirely and expunge prior offenses.

A bipartisan bill would make changes to the banking laws to allow state-legal businesses greater access to loans and other financial services.

Another, cosponsored with Florida Republican Brian Mast, would allow Veterans Administration health providers to discuss state-legal medicinal marijuana with veteran patients.

Blumenauer has also co-written language for appropriations bills that would prevent the Department of Justice from prosecuting marijuana businesses that are legal under state or tribal law.

“All of these things are overwhelmingly popular, they’re important, we have legislative vehicles and supporters,” he said.

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Still, there may be disagreements about what to pursue next.

Recent years have seen disagreements among Democratic supporters of legalization over whether to prioritize banking or criminal justice reforms.

A banking overhaul has much greater bipartisan support, and advocates on all sides of the issue agree it’s the most likely to see congressional action.

But some who support changes to banking laws in principle object to focusing on improving the business environment without first addressing the harms they say prohibition has caused to largely non-white and disadvantaged communities.

As recently as 2021, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer described banking reform legislation as too narrow. Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, called it a “common-sense policy” but said that he favored a more comprehensive approach.

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“I’ve gone around with Cory on that,” Blumenauer said. “More than anybody in Congress, I’m in favor of the major reforms, and we’ve been fighting for racial justice and equity … but (racial justice and banking reforms) are not mutually exclusive.”

In September, Booker agreed to co-sponsor the banking reform bill after winning a promise from Schumer that a separate bill to help expunge criminal records would also receive a vote. Neither measure has actually received a floor vote.

In a statement following the administration’s announcement on rescheduling, Booker praised the move, but called for further action from Congress.

That includes passing a bill he’s sponsored that would decriminalize the drug at the federal level, expunge the records of people convicted of federal marijuana crimes and direct federal funding to communities “most harmed by the failed War on Drugs,” according to a summary from Booker’s office.

“We still have a long way to go,” Booker said in the statement on rescheduling. “Thousands of people remain in prisons around the country for marijuana-related crimes. They continue to bear the devastating consequences that come with a criminal history.”

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Blumenauer said Congress should act on the proposals that have widespread support from voters.

“This not low-hanging fruit, this is having them pick it up off the ground,” he said. “There is no other controversial issue that has as much bipartisan support that’s awaiting action.”

 

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South Dakota

Here's What I Know: The return of real polling in South Dakota

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Here's What I Know: The return of real polling in South Dakota


The polls are back.

It’s a byproduct of our short attention span, or a fascination with sports metaphors, but every election cycle we get drenched in polling.

This dude versus that dude. Up, down, sideways, trends, subsets, gender, race, age, etc.

Everything you’d want to know on this issue or that.

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It’s all quite fascinating.

And potentially dangerous.

I got my first insight into polling many years ago while working in Des Moines.

The late and legendary Tom Fogarty was a reporter for the Des Moines Register who worked on one of the most influential political polls in the country. The Iowa Poll covered more than politics, however, and had for decades by that point.

I was lucky enough to spend some quality time with Tom during the quiet moments in the Iowa Senate, where we both worked as reporters. I was young and learned a lot just watching him and reading his stories.

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He was smart, funny, a great writer and unimpressed with people in power. It was like getting a master’s degree in how to be a real reporter.

(He also pulled a masterful prank on me, related to the visit of then President Bill Clinton, a story that is retold in some circles to this day. But sadly, not here.)

What I learned from Tom about polling was the importance of the questions, how they are constructed, how the words you use matter.

I took that background into later jobs where I wrote about polls and then supervised them, working directly with professional pollsters to get the most-accurate results possible.

The world has changed immeasurably since those early days.

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There are myriad ways in which groups or politicians gauge sentiment. They use this information to guide their actions and to influence the public.

Which means that accuracy and credibility are more important than ever.

So I’ve been pleased to see the polling conducted in recent months by South Dakota News Watch. News Watch is a nonprofit newsroom founded by a couple of my former bosses at the Argus Leader and staffed by some former colleagues.

Forum Communications, the parent company of Sioux Falls Live, is a supporter and we use News Watch content on our site and the Mitchell Republic.

One of the reasons I’m happy to see News Watch taking up the mission is because of who they choose to do business with, specifically Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy.

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That’s the same firm we used at the Argus Leader for many years, including through the highly contentious campaigns for U.S. Senate in the early 2000s.

They are thorough, professional and maintain incredibly high standards for independence.

It’s never an exact science, rather polling is just a snapshot of a moment in time. Many factors can and do influence the outcome.

The results have a margin of error, an important footnote when you’re examining the coverage of a poll. If there isn’t information on sample size, margin of error and methodology, don’t trust it.

Also, remember the further you dive into the numbers – the subgroups of geography, gender, age or race, etc. – the less accurate they become.

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There’s a lot of bad information out there, including pollsters experimenting with various digital methods to extract information. We’ve seen time and again wild claims that end up falling flat on Election Day.

I can say without hesitation that Mason-Dixon was solid in service of our reporting and believe them to be so today.

We’ve recently published stories from News Watch on their latest round of polling.

We’ve seen results on ballot measures related to abortion, the sales tax on groceries, recreational pot and open primaries.

The results have prompted responses from politicians and commentators, some dire warnings and other exaltations of glee.

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That’s not to say things won’t take a turn.

Stu Whitney, investigative reporter for South Dakota News Watch.

Contributed

The questions on this year’s ballot have major implications for how South Dakota is run. Direct democracy has been part of the collective heritage in this state since the early days.

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While recent years have seen increasing efforts to thwart voter influence in this way, it remains a powerful tool for change in a state where change is rare currency.

News Watch has stepped into a vacuum of polling in South Dakota. What was once the purview of daily newspapers and broadcasters had fallen into a hole of neglect.

I found it notable enough that I rang up Stu Whitney, my former colleague and reporter for News Watch.

Whitney said working with Mason-Dixon has history in the state and the ability to track trends – such as approval ratings for the state’s top politicians – over time. News Watch partners with the Chiesman Center for Democracy at the University of South Dakota to produce the polling.

“It seemed natural in 2024 with such an impactful election, to gauge some of the candidate races but also the ballot measures,” Whitney told me. “Not just the numbers, but to get inside the polling numbers in South Dakota and talk to both sides and get at some of the intricacies of what the impact would be if a measure were to pass.”

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Polling gives us a guidepost, a starting point for digging into the public consciousness on an issue.

All of us live in a bubble. It’s easy to let yourself plunge down the waterslide of assumption, that what your circle of friends believes is true reflects the facts on the ground.

It’s not always so.

In fact, it’s rarely so.

A well-executed measure of public opinion, we hope, is fodder for a deeper discussion about the issue or candidate at the center of the question.

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Do South Dakotans, for instance, support stringent restrictions on a woman’s right to have an abortion?

Current poll results would suggest no. Why is that?

Should the state reform the sales tax when it comes to consumables – a.k.a. groceries – as proposed on the November ballot?

The News Watch poll indicates that residents do support that.

It’s the next question, the follow-up discussion, that matters, Whitney said.

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“Regardless of the feedback, it’s important to enlighten people on these issues,” he said. “When you see the talk about turnout, the low voter engagement, this is going to be on the November ballot and it’s going to affect your life. We want to give you as much information as possible to go to the polls with. Anyone who reads them will see there is not just pure poll numbers, there is perspective in there as well.”

News Watch has plans to continue polling through this election cycle and beyond. There’s a lot we can learn, not just the head-to-head nature of electoral politics, but what’s at the core of our beliefs in South Dakota.

I’m excited to learn more.





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South Dakota

More than 200 people suing South Dakota for Hideaway Hills sinkhole

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More than 200 people suing South Dakota for Hideaway Hills sinkhole


RAPID CITY, S.D. (KEVN) – Imagine waking up one day to a large sinkhole right outside your house.

For some residents of Hideaway Hills, that’s exactly what happened in April 2020 when a sinkhole formed revealing an abandoned gypsum mine.

Four years later, more than 200 people are involved in a lawsuit against the State of South Dakota and are seeking $60 million in damages.

Since 2020, the sinkhole in the Hideaway Hills neighborhood in Black Hawk has led to anger and fear.

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“There’s no guarantee that a sinkhole won’t open under a school bus or somebody’s bedroom or anything else that’s out there. They’re also afraid they’re going to lose their utilities and they’re going to have to move,” said Kathleen Barrow an attorney with Fox Rothschild LLP.

Now, there is a class action lawsuit against the state of South Dakota as more than 200 people are claiming the area to be too dangerous to live in.

“To the degree that there was an incorrect or inadequate reclamation which is certainly one of the things we’re alleging, it can only be attributable to the state,” said Barrow.

There are currently 12 homes in an evacuation zone and a total of 158 homes are threatened due to their foundations having nothing stable to sit on.

Barrow believes more homes will be added to the evacuation zone.

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“Every time it rains, you get small collapses and subsidence’s and that affects the structures of the homes,” said Barrow.

She feels empathy for those who have lost their homes because of the sinkhole.

“I wouldn’t know what to do because I wouldn’t have the means to buy another house and just vacate the one I’m in. Not very many of us would, but nobody should be living out there, unfortunately, because you don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Barrow.

Barrow says a hearing is expected at some point this summer and a trial is set for damages next spring.

See a spelling or grammatical error in our story? Please click here to report it.

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An anti-abortion group in South Dakota sues to take an abortion rights initiative off the ballot

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An anti-abortion group in South Dakota sues to take an abortion rights initiative off the ballot


An anti-abortion group in South Dakota has sued to block an abortion rights measure from the November ballot.

In its complaint filed Thursday, Life Defense Fund alleged various wrongdoing by the measure’s supporters, as well as invalid signatures and fraud. The group seeks to disqualify or invalidate the initiative.

In May, Secretary of State Monae Johnson validated the measure by Dakotans for Health for the Nov. 5 general election ballot. The measure’s supporters had submitted about 54,000 signatures to qualify the ballot initiative. They needed about 35,000 signatures. Johnson’s office deemed about 85% of signatures as valid, based on a random sample.

Life Defense Fund alleged Dakotans for Health didn’t file a required affidavit for petition circulators’ residency, and that petitioners didn’t always provide a required circulator handout and left petition sheets unattended. Life Defense Fund also objected to numerous more signatures as invalid, and alleged petitioners misled people as to what they were signing.

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“The public should scrutinize Dakotan for Health’s comments and carefully consider its credibility. In the end, the Court will determine whether such unlawful conduct may result in the measure being included on the ballot,” Life Defense Fund attorney Sara Frankenstein said in an email Monday.

Dakotans for Health called Life Defense Fund’s lawsuit “a last-ditch effort to undermine the democratic process.”

“They have thrown everything they could, and now the kitchen sink, to stop the voters from weighing in this November. We are confident that the people of South Dakota are going to be able to make this decision, not the politicians, come this November,” co-founder Rick Weiland said in a statement Friday.

The measure would bar the state from regulating “a pregnant woman’s abortion decision and its effectuation” in the first trimester, but it would allow second-trimester regulations “only in ways that are reasonably related to the physical health of the pregnant woman.”

The constitutional amendment would allow the state to regulate or prohibit abortion in the third trimester, “except when abortion is necessary, in the medical judgment of the woman’s physician, to preserve the life or health of the pregnant woman.”

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South Dakota outlaws abortion as a felony crime, except to save the life of the mother, under a trigger law that took effect in 2022 with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision that overturned the constitutional right to an abortion under Roe v. Wade.

The measure drew opposition from South Dakota’s Republican-controlled Legislature earlier this year. The Legislature approved a resolution officially opposing the measure, and it passed a law allowing petition signers to withdraw their signatures from initiative petitions. The latter is not expected to affect the measure going before voters.

Life Defense Fund is also seeking to ban Dakotans for Health and its workers from sponsoring or circulating petitions or doing ballot initiative committee work for four years.

South Dakota is one of four states – along with Colorado, Florida and Maryland – where measures to enshrine abortion rights into the state constitution will come before voters in November. There are petition drives to add similar questions in seven more states.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and ended the nationwide right to abortion two years ago, there have been seven statewide abortion-related ballot measures, and abortion rights advocates have prevailed on all of them.

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Dura reported from Bismarck, North Dakota. Associated Press writer Geoff Mulvihill contributed to this story from Cherry Hill, New Jersey.



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