WILLMAR — South Dakotans voting to legalize recreational marijuana July 1 creates some challenges for law enforcement in Minnesota, mainly the possibility of impaired drivers coming back from South Dakota.
“The potential for drivers who have consumed marijuana to various impairment levels and then driving in Minnesota creates a safety risk, mainly due to the impact of marijuana on reaction time and impaired judgment on their driving,” Willmar Police Chief Jim Felt said.
South Dakota, Montana, Arizona and New Jersey also approved the sale of marijuana on Nov. 3, making recreational marijuana legal in 15 states and Washington, D.C.
South Dakota and Mississippi also approved medical marijuana measures, bringing the total nationwide to 34 states, which include Minnesota.
Felt wrote in an email that the new law could lead some people to bring back marijuana to Minnesota, where it is still illegal.
“South Dakota law would allow recreational use in South Dakota only,” Felt wrote. “Any marijuana or marijuana products must stay in South Dakota or be subject to Minnesota penalties.”
In Minnesota, possession of marijuana in an amount less than 42.5 grams is a petty misdemeanor, which is a non-arrestable offense — except if it’s more than 1.4 grams in a vehicle, when it becomes a misdemeanor.
“Misdemeanors are typically cited, but a person may be arrested based on violent behavior, history of non-compliance, etc.,” Felt wrote. “For anyone in possession of over 42.5 grams of marijuana, it becomes a fifth-degree controlled substance crime which is a felony.”
Felt wrote that, with the exception of rare circumstances, felonies result in an arrest.
Big Stone County Sheriff Mark Brown said while he is not fully aware of what the South Dakota law says, any sort of law loosening the restrictions on marijuana would create more supply of the product and he’s also concerned about impaired drivers.
“However, they passed something within the state that the voters approved and that’s their law,” Brown said. “We just kind of got to deal with it here because we’re right across the border.”
Pennington County, South Dakota, Sheriff Kevin Thom and Col. Rick Miller, superintendent of the South Dakota Highway Patrol, brought a lawsuit, which is backed by Gov. Kristi Noem, challenging the amendment.
South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, the group that proposed the constitutional amendment, announced Monday, Nov. 23, the organization would file the needed paperwork to intervene in the case to help defend the amendment.
The lawsuit, brought in Hughes County, South Dakota, essentially argues South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws abused the initiative process that put it on the ballot, argues that the amendment's changes to the state Constitution are too broad, and argues its insertion of a new article in the Constitution goes against amendment provisions laid out in the Constitution.
Brown said he did not want to get into whether or not he supports legalizing marijuana in Minnesota.
“That’s kind of a catch-22 because our office has to support whatever the Legislature, whether I agree with it or not, whatever they pass,” Brown said.
Brown said he suspects Minnesota won’t be far behind legalizing recreational marijuana in the future.
“South Dakota, historically, is a state that I would have never envisioned as passing (this law). They have historically been one of the most anti-drug and -controlled substance states there is,” Brown said. “ .... So you can just see that it’s probably a matter of time before it ends up here in Minnesota, at least becomes a hot topic.”
Chief Felt, for his part, wrote that he does not support legalizing recreational marijuana, citing the difficulty with access to adequate mental health and chemical dependency services in Minnesota that would be further strained with legalizing marijuana, the potential for it to be ingested by children due to similar packaging to candy, and potency variations that can cause accidental impairment.
“Marijuana is already 'out there' in the community, but legalization would make it easier for people to access both legally and illegally for misuse,” Felt wrote, later adding that there is already a tremendous misuse of legal and highly regulated products like alcohol and tobacco.
“Adding an additional mood- and mind-altering substance to the mix is a setup for failure, in my opinion,” Felt wrote.
Sheriff Brown said his office will always enforce what’s illegal “and on the same token, we’ll always respect, whether we like it or not, we’ll always respect whatever the voters of our state, Minnesota, decide to pass and not pass or what our Legislature decides to pass or not pass.”
Barry Amundson and Jeremy Fugleberg of Forum News Service contributed to this story.