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Walking past a laser tag game and vendors selling corn dogs Thursday at the Central States Fair, Jennifer Nelson stopped to sign a petition asking for a citizens vote on legalizing medical marijuana. 

"I think that people are more willing to vote for medical marijuana now that other states have already done it, and they see it's not the end of the world," said the 56-year-old Rapid City resident. "I have a lot of family members that have medical problems that I think the CBD oil and medical marijuana could help a lot."

Others, like Janelle Bauer of Piedmont, had no interest in signing the petition.

"The first step is medical, but in the other states it has shown that it moves right into permissive marijuana across the state," the 50-year-old said. "It becomes a disaster for the states."

Most people at the fair have been supportive of the proposed law to legalize medical marijuana and many of those who oppose it politely walk away like Bauer did, said Kevin Quick, West River coordinator of New Approach, a statewide cannabis reform organization that is proposing the initiated measure.

The measure would let patients, including minors, grow and use medical marijuana for "debilitating medical conditions" if they have a doctor's approval and registration card from the state Department of Health, according to the Attorney General's ballot-measure explanation. They could only have three plants and three ounces of marijuana at a time. Companies that grow, test and sell marijuana also would have to register with the state.

Quick, a 44-year-old who owns Rapid City smoke and vape shops that sell CBD oil products, said he sees the benefits of CBD "on a daily basis" and that medical marijuana can also help people with arthritis, seizures and chronic pain without having to depend on opioids. 

A second group, Cannabis Consumers for Liberty (CC4L), is circulating petitions for a ballot measure that would legalize marijuana for adult recreational use. "The reasons for prohibition are dark, evil and dubious," CC4L, of Spearfish, said in a news release. "Policing cannabis is needlessly expensive and the people no longer believe in the prohibition."

Their ballot measure says you must be over 21 to possess, grow and sell marijuana, according to the Attorney General's explanation. It also says that the products wouldn't be taxed, governments couldn't limit where marijuana-related businesses are located, and users can't be prosecuted for driving under the influence of the drug. 

New Approach has not endorsed decriminalizing marijuana, Quick said. 

The initiatives need 16,961 valid signatures by Nov. 4, 2019, to appear on the Nov. 3, 2020, ballot and then a majority of votes to become law.

If recent history is any indication, marijuana proponents face an uphill battle if their proposals are on the ballot. Medical marijuana ballot measures were rejected in 2006 (52% to 48%) and in 2010 (63% to 37%).

Legalizing medical marijuana would initially cost the state $677,309 but revenue will cover future program costs, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Research Council. The measure would have a minimal impact on prison and jail costs. Decriminalizing marijuana would save $3.15 million in jail and prisons costs, cost $1.5 million to regulate and cost $50,000 due to increased vehicle crashes for net savings of $3.1 million, according to the LRC

Tawni Brooks, a 19-year-old from Rapid City whose spent about 40 hours with New Approach at the fair, said medical marijuana isn't supported just by young and liberal people. 

"We've had anywhere from barely 18-year-olds all the way up to someone that can't even stand to write the petition, they need to sit down," she said. "So, it's really awesome that we're not just aiming towards one audience. We're helping a lot of different people."

Nelson said she believes more South Dakotans are willing to support medical marijuana.

"South Dakota is very timid when it comes to change and so conservative, but I think as the population ages that's what's going to help get this through. I think older voters are going to think, 'man my knees hurt all the damn time,'" Nelson said. "It's a tax-raising benefit to the state, and I think it's safer than alcohol and I think there's a lot less problems that come along with it as opposed to alcohol."

Bauer, who has a daughter studying nursing and a son going into law enforcement, said "cannabis isn’t a magic bullet for curing chronic pain or disease" and said other medicine and treatment is more safe and effective.

She also said she's worried that legalizing marijuana will cause health problems, lead to an increase in crime and impact companies that have to begin testing employees for the drug.

Andrew Peterson, a 31-year-old from Box Elder, said he signed the petition because medical marijuana "helps more people out then it hurts."

He said his late father moved from Rapid City to Oregon so he could use medical marijuana to treat his pain as he died from cancer.

Peterson, who visited the fair with his wife and two young children, said he has no problem with New Approach advocating for medical marijuana at the family-friendly event.

"I don't think it's anything worse than all those Bud Light, Budweiser signs hanging up behind us," he said as he pointed to giant beer advertisements draped from the Grandstand Arena. 

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— Contact Arielle Zionts at arielle.zionts@rapidcityjournal.com

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