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The Political Fight Over Recreational Marijuana is Far from Over

public domain photo of a marijuana plant

The Spring 2023 Poll, conducted between March 18-27, 2023, is a survey of the South Dakota electorate by The South Dakota Polling Project – a non-partisan research group housed in the School of American and Global Studies at South Dakota State University. In this poll, 747 registered voters answered questions about political figures and policy questions of concern to South Dakota citizens. The margin of error of this survey was +/- 3.6 percent, similar to most statewide polls.

Marijuana Will Be Back on the Agenda… Maybe.For those that have followed the issue, recreational marijuana has received constant attention over the past two election cycles. In the 2020 election, the state’s electorate approved a measure to legalize recreational marijuana by a 54-46 margin, only to see that measure voided on procedural grounds by the state Supreme Court. In 2022, activists put a new measure on the ballot only to see that fall 53-47.

There are now signs that another effort might be made for a third try in 2024. Reformers cite lower turnout rates in midterm elections as a possible cause of the turnaround in their electoral fortunes. According to the Secretary of State’s Office, in 2020, the statewide turnout was 427,529, a 73.9% turnout rate. In 2022, 354,670 ballots were cast, for a 59.4% turnout rate. Those could be very different electorates. Irrespective of the reasons why it failed, it is clear that the state is split, and that the issue is most assuredly not settled.

We asked registered voters in our random sample about their attitudes on legalizing recreational marijuana. Their opinions are very evenly split. In sum, 49% said they were either strongly or somewhat in favor of legalization, whilst 41% said they were strongly or somewhat opposed. This largely mirrors the results of the 2020 election and suggests that turnout will be key in determining the outcome.

Pie chart showing the overall support and opposition to legalized recreational marijuana. 30% strongly supports, 19% supports, 10% neither, 11% somewhat opposes, 30% strongly opposes.

Party Matters. Like most issues in American politics these days, party cues largely steer people towards these preferences – even amongst self-identified independents. This holds true for marijuana legalization. While the parties are not monolithic on this (they rarely are on any policy), they are clearly slanted. About 71% of Democrats are favorable towards legalization, whereas only 23% of Republicans are favorable.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the parties is in the intensity of the belief—the opposition is stronger amongst Republicans than the intensity of support is amongst Democrats. This could explain part of the differences in the outcomes in the 2020 and 2022 elections – again, the electorate is not the same in presidential and non-presidential years.

The dissenting voices are nearly the same proportion in both parties; 22% and 23% for Democrats and Republicans, respectively. The fate of any initiated measure in this state will be largely in the hands of these dissenting Republicans. A majority for legalization simply cannot be cobbled together without some of these Republicans crossing party lines.

pie charts showing that the support and opposition to recreational marijuana are nearly a perfect obverse between the parties

Men and Women are Converging on the Issue.One shift that we discussed in the reports of our polling last year is a convergence of men’s and women’s attitudes on this policy question. Our latest data indicate that this trend continues. In fact, the small differences we saw in fall 2022 between South Dakotan men and women have completely disappeared.

Until recently, men were generally more supportive of legalization than women. This was often attributed to women being less risk averse than men. This convergence shows that marijuana legalization has become a mainstream position. Two decades ago, that wasn’t the case. Support was limited to small demographic pockets around the country. Today, it is treated like most other partisan issues in a rather predictable fashion.

While South Dakota does trail behind other states in the level of support for legalization, it is following the national trend. We quite literally would not be having the same conversation 20 years ago because of the staunch opposition. Should this issue appear yet again on the ballot, its passage is very much within the realm of possibility.

pie chart showing that the gender gap on recreational marijuana legalization has nearly closed

Contributors: David Wiltse Ph.D. and Filip Viskupič Ph.D.