Montana Public Radio

Court Hears Arguments Over Electronic Signature-Gathering For Marijuana Legalization Initiative

Apr 28, 2020

The sponsor of two proposed ballot initiatives to legalize recreational marijuana for use by people 21 and older appeared in court Tuesday. The group is asking for flexibility in Montana’s ballot issue process amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

New Approach Montana is arguing its case in Lewis and Clark County District Court. The group says the recent stay-at-home order and continued social distancing directives make it near impossible to gather enough in-person signatures to qualify their petitions for the November ballot.

Attorney James Melloy represents New Approach, which is asking the court to allow electronic signatures to count toward the thousands needed from across the state to put the question of legalized weed in front of voters.

"I might also point out, your honor, that the fact that this hearing itself is being held by telephone speaks to the seriousness of the situation that we find ourselves in. Common sense tells you that people are going to avoid being approached by a petition circulator asking them to sign an initiative," Melloy told the court.

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New Approach is also asking for an extension to the mid-June deadline to submit those signatures.

Judge Jon Larson expressed concern during the hearing about moving so quickly with a new technology for collecting signatures.

"New, untried and certainly not contemplated by the Constitution at the time it was written."

Attorneys for the state argue New Approach does not have enough evidence of how electronic signature gathering could be done securely, and the group’s situation is self-inflicted, as it has not yet started collecting signatures.

Ballot petitions have, at most, a year to collect those signatures.

Initiative-190 would legalize use of recreational marijuana in the state. It requires over 25,000 valid voter signatures to appear on November’s ballot.

Constitutional Initiative-118 aims to amend the state constitution to set the age of marijuana consumption and possession at 21. It needs almost 51,000 valid voter signatures.