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Pot Ballot Initiative Backers Explain Their Strategies

State lawmakers got an update on September 14 on Montana’s new medical marijuana regulation program.
Montanans' legal access to this leafy green substance could be determined at the ballot box in November.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars are pouring into efforts to both expand and eliminate Montanans' legal access to marijuana.

The funds are fueling the work of initiative groups collecting signatures in hopes of creating law by ballot initiatives this November.

An initiative needs more than 24,000 signatures to make it on the ballot.

Today those signatures are due.

“You need a lot of people," says Steve Sabawa from Billings, director of SafeMontana. "You need a lot of paid people, signature gathers, to hit a lot of locations with high traffic to get the signatures,” Zabawa says.

SafeMontana is pushing to make all drugs illegal under federal law, including marijuana, also illegal under Montana law. That would mean repealing all of the state law permitting medical marijuana.

“We don't believe in recreational drugs," Zabawa says. "We are totally adamantly opposed to them. We see what they do to families, and we are in favor of happy, healthy, motivated families.”

This is Zabawa’s second time trying to gather enough signatures to bring his issue to voters, and he says it’s hard work. He first tried in 2014, but failed to get enough signatures. But this year, Zawaba says he got more organized. He has a 12-person staff.

“We’re been to every major city for major events to get signatures," he says. "It takes a lot of effort to get there, to get organized, to get ready to collect the signatures, ask the people, tell them what you’ve got. And then one at a time get that signature. So, it’s a lot of effort, a lot of money, a lot of organization. It’s a statewide campaign.”

Zabawa says he’s invested over $100,000 of his own money into the SafeMontana cause. He expects his initiative, I-176, to make it on the November ballot.

That isn’t the case for AnthonyVarriano, who sponsored a different ballot issue to make recreational use of marijuana legal, like four states and the District of Columbia have recently done.

“I think the platform works," Varriano says, "it was just a really bad year to campaign for a marijuana initiative.”

Varriano says he’s come up short of the signatures needed to qualify for the ballot.

He says it was a bad year in part because in February the state Supreme Court upheld a law created by the 2011 legislature that limited medical marijuana providers to three patients each.

After that happened, Varriano says those who might have been willing to work for passage of a recreational marijuana initiative instead put their efforts into rebuilding access to medical marijuana.

Varraino says he didn’t have the funding or the staff to get the number of signatures he needed in time. But he will try again in four years.

“I mean that is what happens when you try something for the first time. But we learned a lot though, and it was by no means a failure," he says.

Varranio says his campaign raised just under $8,000 dollars.

In comparison, ballot issue I-182, to expand access to medical marijuana has spent just shy of $100,000. Most of that money has come from medical marijuana businesses in Montana, and some from individual donations.

Montana Citizens for I-182 Field Director Morgan Marks says the money bought the effort an organizer in almost every region in the state and a core staff of 20 people.

“Signature gatherers are paid $15 an hour, the organizers are paid $16 (an hour),” he says.

Marks says signatures gatherers heard lots of support for medical marijuana.

"Montanans really want an accountable and responsible medical marijuana program," he says. "It shows in the number of signatures and it shows in the stories that they heard as they are gathering those signatures.”

Marks’ group put 80 people, many of them volunteers, into the field on Montana’s primary election day, June 7th.

“It was a big push, its been a lot of effort," he says. "People are tired. But it was all worth it and everybody is celebrating now, because with that primary day that solidified the fact that we are confident that we will put I-182 on the ballot this November.”

Signatures for ballot initiatives were due today, but issue organizers won’t officially know if they’ve qualified for the ballot for about 30 days.

Then, if they make it, new campaigns will begin, this time to convince voters that their initiatives should become law.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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