When it came time to cast their ballots, more than 54 percent of South Dakota voters took to the polls in November in favor of a constitutional amendment to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.

But on Monday, a South Dakota circuit judge appointed by Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R) rejected that change, arguing that it would have “far-reaching effects on the basic nature” of the state’s government to the point of being unconstitutional.

Judge Christina Klinger’s ruling sets up what is likely to be an increasingly contentious legal battle over the state’s Amendment A, which allows residents to grow, license and sell cannabis.

Brendan Johnson, a lawyer who represents South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, the group that put the measure on the ballot, told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader that he planned to appeal the ruling to state Supreme Court.

The group’s measure is part of a broader nationwide push toward the decriminalization of marijuana, as shifting attitudes in the United States about drug use — and cannabis in particular — have heralded a rapid turnover in the legality of the drug across the country.

It is still illegal to use marijuana under federal law, but nearly a third of all states have eased the criminal consequences for its recreational use. Besides South Dakota, three other states — Arizona, New Jersey and Montana — voted in November to legalize recreational marijuana, while Mississippi legalized medical uses of the drug.

That push has gone national, too. In December, the House of Representatives voted to pass a bill that would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level, though it is unclear how the bill might fare in a split Senate.

But South Dakota’s vote stands out as a particularly extreme shift in state policy. While many other states have slowly taken steps toward legalized marijuana, Amendment A would make it the first state in the country to simultaneously legalize marijuana for medical and recreational uses.

As the Associated Press reported last year, the momentum behind the measure took on a surprisingly bipartisan tenor ahead of the election, with some longtime Republicans noting that they backed the change in accordance with values of personal freedom and responsibility.

“We have a real problem here where we have criminalized an entire generation of South Dakotans, and we’re paying a price,” Johnson, of South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, told the news agency.

But Noem had spoken out publicly against the initiative, and even after it passed by a margin of eight percentage points, she was quick to join efforts to challenge it in court. In November, a lawsuit was filed against Amendment A by two law enforcement officers, Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom and the Highway Patrol superintendent, Col. Rick Miller. In the case of Miller, Noem ordered that the state would pay for his legal fees.

Klinger, a circuit judge who was appointed by Noem in 2019, ruled Monday that the amendment violated a state requirement that restricts such measures to a single topic.

As written, the judge said, Amendment A covered taxes, business licensing and hemp cultivation. She added that it also intruded on the powers of state lawmakers and the governor’s office by allowing a state agency to administer recreational marijuana.

Noem cheered the decision in a statement to the Argus Leader, saying it was one that “protects and safeguards our constitution.”

“I’m confident that South Dakota Supreme Court, if asked to weigh in as well, will come to the same conclusion,” she said.

If a higher court overturns Klinger’s ruling, July 1 will mark the first day it will be legal to possess small amounts of marijuana in South Dakota.

-Washington Post