PIERRE, S.D. — With South Dakota voters' approval of recreational marijuana stymied in the court system, senators brought a legislative path to lessen the state's strict criminal penalties for drug use, only to be defeated after floor debate.

Sen. Michael Rohl, an Aberdeen Republican, saw both of his bills — one to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana and a measure to remove South Dakota's only-in-the-nation felony penalty for drug ingestion — die after spirited debate on the Senate floor.

Opponents argued the measures would open the floodgates to drug usage by removing dis-incentives.

"That's like a speeding ticket," said Sen. Helene Duhamel, R-Rapid City, who is employed by the Pennington County Sheriff as a public information officer. "This bill empowers certain people to be drug dealers."

When Sen. David Wheeler, R-Huron, stood to support the measure, saying removing criminal penalties for possessing under an ounce of marijuana would be honoring the will of the people, Sen. Jim Bolin, R-Canton, began a fiery oration criticizing "popular sovereignty."

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"There are some instances when we in the Legislature should closely look and evaluate what a vote of the people is and say, 'Is this really the best action that we should follow?'" Bolin said.

Rohl dryly observed — in the legislative chamber — that members appreciated popular vote in some instances.

The bill died 18-15.

Decriminalizing drug ingestion

It was a much more lopsided vote on the second measure, which sought to drop a felony charge to misdemeanor for drug ingestion. South Dakota is the only state in the nation with this severity of offense.

Again, Duhamel stood to argue a felony charge was a "prosecutor's tool" against drug users. Sen. Jim Stalzer, R-Sioux Falls, said "sometimes it takes a felony to get someone straightened out."

Senate Minority Leader Troy Heinert, D-Mission, referred to the state's drug laws as "archaic" and said it was possible for people to legally smoke marijuana in other states only to return to South Dakota and break the law.

"Nobody is supporting illegal drug use," Heinert said. "But everyone should also be talking about what we have done in dealing with addicts."

Ultimately, the measure was defeated with only six supporters.

House pushes back medical marijuana by six months

Across the rotunda at the statehouse, as the South Dakota Legislature completed so-called "crossover day," or the final day bills can pass out of one chamber and proceed to the other, the House of Representatives voted to delay implementation of the state's medical marijuana program by six months. Lawmakers cited the ongoing pandemic exhausting the resources of the Department of Health, the department tasked with implementing the medical marijuana program.

The House voted 40-28 in favor of HB 1100, meaning medical marijuana wouldn't be legalized until Jan. 1, 2022. Seventy percent of South Dakota voters approved the ballot measure in November.