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Field Dispatch: Inside South Dakota’s Grassroots Movement to Legalize Medical Cannabis

When you’re fighting for cannabis in a conservative state, you take inspiration where you can find it. Last year Melissa Mentele and Joy Beukelman (pictured below), two thirty-something moms living in small South Dakota farm towns, watched the documentary Evergreen, which chronicled the 2012 legalization campaign in Washington State. “We saw a woman–Alison Holcomb–leading the movement,” Mentele recalled. After the credits rolled, Mentele and Beukelman asked each other: Why not us?

Last Monday the two women and their New Approach South Dakota supporters appeared at the Secretary of State’s office in Pierre bearing more than 16,000 voter signatures in favor of a statewide measure legalizing medical marijuana. “We needed 13,871, and we wanted to give ourselves a little leeway,” Mentele said after delivering the signatures.

If the signatures are verified, medical marijuana will be on the South Dakota ballot in November 2016.

A little more than 24 hours after delivering the petitions, Leafly caught up with Mentele and Beukelman over coffee in the restaurant of the Royal River Casino near the town of Flandreau. Workers and gamblers spotted their matching “South Dakota Medical Marijuana” hoodies and offered congratulations.

New Approach South Dakota cannabis activists at their booth

“We gathered a lot of signatures here,” Mentele said. “We’d come every Thursday. Senior Day.”

Senior Day?

“Seniors were huge for us,” she said. “Our strongest base of support is among folks over fifty.”

Beukelman recalled an older casino security guard who often shot them a skeptical eye. “But in the end, he signed too,” she said.

The general election may be a tougher nut to crack. South Dakota voters rejected MMJ legalization in 2006 and again in 2010. The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) dedicated $428,000 to the 2006 measure, which failed 52 to 48 percent. In 2010, MPP chipped in $4,600 and the measure got walloped, 63 to 37 percent. MPP has offered advice to New Approach South Dakota on the new attempt, but is saving its money for campaigns aimed at full legalization.

New Approach is getting by, though. “We got this far on about $10,000” raised locally, said Mentele. “Most of our costs were paper and gasoline.” They fished for signatures at the Flandreau casino; at the South Dakota State Fair; at Riverboat Days in Yankton; at the Brown County Fair; at quilting fairs and craft bazaars, and anywhere else people gathered in the rural state.

We wondered if they got much criticism or pushback.

Mentele laughed. “Look at us–we’re the bake sale moms,” she said. “We don’t get much pushback.”