MTPR

Three Marijuana Initiatives Could Appear On Montana Ballots This November

Jul 9, 2015

Billings businessman Steve Zabawa believes marijuana is a scourge that ruins lives.

Zabawa’s drafted a proposed initiative for the 2016 ballot that states all drugs illegal under federal law would also be illegal under Montana law. That would also include the cultivation, possession and use of marijuana, including medical marijuana.

"I don't see where stoning something, stoning someone - it's killing their ambition and sending them off into psycho-land - is good for people," Zabawa says.

"I haven't seen one person who gets healed. I haven't seen anybody improve their family relationship. I see a lot of divorce over it. I see a lot of people not participating properly. I see my nephews and stuff where their brain is burnt after 5 years of doing it in high school. They're physically and mentally not sharp enough because of what the pot has done to them to move forward in their life."

"I don't see where stoning something, stoning someone - it's killing their ambition and sending them off into psycho-land - is good for people."

His proposed ballot initiative is, so far, one of three that could appear on next year's ballot asking voters to weigh in on drugs.

Another proposal would revise Montana's current medical marijuana law. Its provisions include removing limits on the amount of marijuana a provider could possess. It would also let providers supply marijuana to an unlimited number of people licensed to use medical pot.

Glendive resident Anthony Varriano wants to take it a step further. He believes it's time for Montanans who are at least 21 years old to have the right to smoke pot for pleasure.

"It's not hurting anyone. I mean, Colorado and Washington seem to be just fine. I think we should learn from them and take a page out of their book."

Varriano is a 29-year-old part-time newspaper sports reporter who says he suffers from a degenerative disc disease and is himself a medical marijuana patient.

He wonders why it's taking America so long to legalize pot.

"Right now I'm in a town [Glendive, MT] that has a jail that's full to capacity. When I did a story about a year ago, a third of them were non-violent drug abusers. So, you're looking at a lot of taxpayer money saved in incarceration, a lot fewer non-violent offenders locked up for silly offenses like possessing marijuana."

Under his proposal the state would regulate and tax marijuana sales. A percentage of that revenue would be earmarked for public schools.

Colorado Public Radio reporter Ben Markus covers that state's marijuana industry. Markus says marijuana tax revenue certainly helps fill state coffers, but adds it isn't the budget cure-all that some portray it to be.

"We're talking tens of millions of dollars here at the statewide level, not hundreds of millions. It's not enough to change the way people think about state budgets."

Markus points out that Colorado never had a better tourism year than it did last year. Hotel occupancy rates and flights in and out of Denver set records. He says Colorado has always been a popular tourist  destination.

"But clearly when you walk into a dispensary in downtown Denver and you meet people from Germany, Connecticut and South Africa you get a sense of how big this was and how many people are traveling here to get high."

"Crime has not increased dramatically. Traffic accidents have not increased dramatically, nor have they gone down dramatically. It's just too soon to know what the impact of this is going to be. We're only a year-and-a-half in. There are no trends yet."

Montana marijuana advocate Anthony Varriano says legalizing pot reduces violent crime rates.

Pot opponent, Steve Zabawa of Billings says the opposite. He uses the word "craziness" to describe what's happening in Colorado.

Colorado Public Radio's Ben Markus says preliminary data suggests the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

"Crime has not increased dramatically. Traffic accidents have not increased dramatically, nor have they gone down dramatically. It's just too soon to know what the impact of this is going to be. We're only a year-and-a-half in. There are no trends yet."

Markus notes legalization didn't happen overnight in Colorado. Voters first approved medical marijuana in 2000. About a decade later the Obama administration softened its stance on medical pot where it was already legal. Dispensaries then started to sprout up across the state.

"And it was that part of that socialization to marijuana - that people were surrounded by it and the sky did not fall - that may have made voters in 2012 more accepting of recreational marijuana and they approved it overwhelmingly in Colorado."

Now the work begins for Montana's pot advocates and opponents who hope to get their issues on next year's ballot. They need to collect thousands of valid voter signatures to make that happen.