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 Legalizing marijuana: “We know what’s coming. If we don’t stop it, this is the birth of the next tobacco industry. It’s going to be like the birth of every other drug where the societal costs are much bigger than what any community is going to make on this.”  – Bob Doyle, Colorado Tobacco Education and Prevention Alliance

Facing another cash shortfall, South Dakota is once again casting about for places to cut costs or increase revenue.

Most experts agree that the sluggish farm economy and increased online buying have contributed to the disappointing sales tax collections.

The governor, citing a $34 million shortfall for 2018, already has said state employees won’t get a raise. Democrats and others for years have been saying that our state is much too dependent on the sales tax as a way to fund government services, and in fact voters took quite a leap of faith by approving a half-cent increase in the state sales tax to give teachers a pay raise.

With all of this as a backdrop, it has provided ammunition for the pro-marijuana forces, which gain strength each year.  The premise is that if marijuana were legalized, it would provide a revenue stream at present not available.

Make pot legal, then tax it and regulate it, or so the argument goes.

It harks back to 1986 when South Dakota decided to legalize video lottery, followed by casino gambling in 1989. For many voters, these moves were preferable to raising taxes. Since then, voters have rejected the idea to repeal state-regulated gaming, knowing that to do so would force them to seek alternative funding.

The scheme to tax marijuana isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem. Legislators last session approved cannabidiol, an oil used for medical conditions. While the hallucinogenic component is absent, the vote opened the door – a sliver at least – for legalizing medical marijuana. Two marijuana measures could be on the ballot this year, and the push in South Dakota for medical pot has picked up steam because 22 states already allow it. Eight more states also allow recreational marijuana while 20 are trying to hold the line against weed for any reason.

Those states that have approved pot are high on the resulting revenue stream, but the debate should be about more than money.  There are negative social consequences, which will be aired in coming months as the pro and con forces fully engage.

Given the bind South Dakota finds itself in year after year, voters may believe they are on the horns of a dilemma: Legalize weed or enact a state income tax. But a third option is superior to the first two: Grow the economy.

It’s easy to lobby for a new tax; much harder to expand jobs in South Dakota, though from this corner that’s clearly the best answer.

Jan. 31, 2018