Lawmakers advance competing strategies to ‘get on’ meth

PIERRE (AP) – As Gov. Kristi Noem tells South Dakotans she wants them to “get on” increasing rates of meth addiction and meth-related arrests, lawmakers this year are looking to do their part. They just can’t agree on the best approach.

Legislators have floated an assortment of proposals to curb the state’s meth problems – from pressuring people with drug felonies to participate in police investigations to easing the prosecution of some of the toughest laws in the country on drug users. 

The Republican-dominated Legislature has two weeks to pass its budget and bills, but a split remains on what should be prioritized: addiction treatment and helping people avoid incarceration or a tough-on-crime approach that gives law enforcement more leeway to threaten drug users with prison time.

Conservative legislators, including the attorney general, want to roll back the presumptive probation program that gives automatic probation to people convicted with low-level drug felonies. South Dakota is the only state to prosecute people for drug possession for ingesting drugs.

Sen. Lance Russell, a Hot Springs Republican, argued that prison may be the only way for people with drug addictions to get clean. He said that many addicted people end up in a “revolving door” system in which they go in-and-out of county jails, but never get addiction treatment.

Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg is pushing a bill that would make people eligible for probation only if they cooperate with law enforcement, including making drug buys, in order to go after dealers. He has argued that this would be an important “piece of the puzzle” in solving the state’s meth problem.

As a tight state budget is finalized in the next two weeks, lawmakers will weigh between targeting funds towards addiction programs that help people avoid prison and Ravnsborg’s proposal that would cost the state nearly $8.5 million over ten years in an increased prison population.

Gov. Kristi Noem is requesting nearly $3 million to boost the state’s meth treatment resources, with another $700,000 for law enforcement targeted at meth addiction. She is calling it the next phase in her plan that started last year with the controversial “Meth. We’re On It.” media campaign. She said it highlighted the state’s meth epidemic and urged people to “get on it.”

“For her, prevention is critical, especially as it relates to keeping families together and children out of foster care,” said the governor’s spokeswoman, Kristin Wileman.

With the governor’s support, Republican lawmakers have pushed through a series of bills that overhauls the state’s mental health resources. The bills aim to expand access to the state’s hotline for people in distress, enable law enforcement to remotely connect people to counselors and establish a triage center in Sioux Falls.

Sen. Deb Soholt, a Sioux Falls Republican, said that the presumptive probation program has resulted in communities “experiencing some pain,” but rather than scaling back the program, she argued that “we have to keep pressing forward.”

“Putting people in jail is not the answer,” she said.

She argues that addiction, mental health and criminal justice are all interconnected and the state needs to come up with a comprehensive way to help people overcome these problems. She is asking the state to put $200,000 towards the Sioux Falls triage center and hopes it could be a model for future triage centers across the state.

As cheap meth has flooded some South Dakota communities in recent years, lawmakers have gotten creative in trying to combat what they call an epidemic. Noem has requested that Native American tribes create cooperation agreements with law enforcement aimed at tackling meth traffickers. Another Republican lawmaker is pushing a bill that would allow pregnant women to get off drug-related charges if they seek prenatal care and addiction treatment.

“I’m sick and tired of hearing people talk about this issue. We need to do something.” said Rep. Spencer Gosch, the Glenham Republican who is pushing that bill.