by Phillip Smith
Provoked by heavy-handed federal raids and prosecutions aimed at medical marijuana providers and prodded on by the Republican-dominated state legislature's virtual repeal-disguised-as-reform of the state's voter-approved medical marijuana law, Montana advocates are now rolling out an initiative campaign for a constitutional amendment that would legalize marijuana in Big Sky County.
Now organized as Montana First, this is largely the same group of activists and supporters who last summer and fall organized the successful signature-gathering campaign to put the IR-24 initiative on the November 2012 ballot. That initiative seeks to undo the legislature's destruction of the state medical marijuana distribution network.
And now they're back for more, and they're cutting to the chase.
Constitutional Initiative No.110 (CI-110) is short and sweet. It would add two sentences to the state constitution: "Adults have the right to responsibly purchase, consume, produce, and possess marijuana, subject to reasonable limitations, regulations, and taxation. Except for actions that endanger minors, children, or public safety, no criminal offense or penalty of this state shall apply to such activities."
In addition to those two sentences, the actual ballot language informs voters which part of the constitution is to be amended, notes that "federal criminal laws regarding marijuana will not be changed by the passage of this initiative," and specifies that it would go into effect July 1, 2013, if approved by the voters.
Passage of the initiative would not directly repeal the state's marijuana laws, but would render them moot, a legal vestige of a bygone era, like laws requiring that horses in front of bars be tethered to rail posts.
"The personal use of marijuana should never result in criminal penalties," explained Barb Trego, a former deputy reserve sheriff in Lewis & Clark County and the measure's proponent. "Whatever you think about marijuana, it's easy to see that we have higher priorities for our law enforcement resources," she said.
"This measure is as simple as it can be," she continued. "The basic principle is clear as day. After voters pass it, there will be work to do to define limits and regulations. This is an appropriate task for elected leaders after the voters signal their preference to stop arresting and jailing adults for personal use of marijuana."
To qualify for the ballot, campaigners need to gather some 45,000 valid voter signatures, and Montana law also requires that those signatures include 10% of voters in at least 40 of 100 of the state's electoral districts. They have until June 22.
While campaigners can point with pride to the successful signature-gathering campaign of a few months ago, this time around, it is going to be more difficult, for a couple of reasons. First, because this is a constitutional initiative, organizers will have to gather more than double the number of signatures they needed for I-24. Second, because the state's once thriving medical marijuana distribution industry has been decimated by state and federal action, the opportunities for fundraising within the industry have largely evaporated.
"We anticipate a mostly volunteer effort; we just don't see any way to have a paid signature-gathering effort, said Montana First treasurer John Masterson, who is also the founder and head of Montana NORML. "We'd like to be able to pay six or seven zone coordinators, people we can count on to work long hours and oversee the petition effort, and we'd like to raise enough money to retain a consulting firm that specializes in making the ballot."
While relying on volunteer efforts to get an initiative on the ballot is usually a death knell for campaigns in high population states -- in California you need more than 500,000; in Michigan, more than 322,000 -- Montana is a different story. Last year's signature-gathering campaign was almost entirely all-volunteer, and it generated a cadre of nearly a thousand petitioners. That's a relatively large activist base for a state with not quite a million residents.
And then there's Montana itself, with its tradition of rugged individualism and suspicion of government. This year, for example, other initiatives being circulated include one that would allow for jury nullification and one that would "reserve to the people" -- not the legislature -- the right to amend or repeal initiatives, as well as a legislative initiative that would bar mandated health insurance purchases that is already set for the ballot.
"Montana is highly independent," said Masterson, "and it's not just a right-wing thing. Our Democratic Gov. Schweitzer opposed REAL ID. Montana really values its independence, and these continuous and ongoing federal intrusions have people of all political stripes outraged."
It's hard to say what will happen, said political consultant and communications specialist Kate Chowela, who was deeply involved with both the IR-24 campaign and the Montana Cannabis Industry Association, but who is "not officially tied to anybody" right now.
"We need bigger signature numbers than last year, and we've been taking a real beating here," she said. "It will depend on whether people are beaten down or whether they feel called to stand up in the face of injustice. And this is happening in a very dynamic world with a lot of instability as well, with the state of the economy, Occupy Wall Street, the elections. All of these things bump up against and influence each other."
"The people in Montana found out they were not safe, the businesses weren't safe, the patients weren't safe, even being a legislator isn't safe," Chowela said, referring to the recent news that the DEA was investigating state legislators for supposed links to marijuana distribution conspiracies. "To some extent, this is the citizens coming back and looking for a way to make their position clear and look for a sense of safety that we have lost completely."
"We believe our initiative really solves a big part of the marijuana problem in America," said Masterson. "By eliminating all penalties for responsible adult use, we send a message to the federal government that if you want to prohibit this plant, Montana does not agree and will not participate in your campaign. That's how alcohol Prohibition crumbled. We think that Montanans will see that a regulated marijuana commerce and the right of adults to access marijuana is far preferable to the harm and damage caused by prohibition, to say nothing of the waste of our police resources."
The petitions have been printed up, the volunteers are hitting the pavement, and the clock is ticking down toward June. A legalization initiative has already been approved for the ballot in Washington, and one is awaiting almost certain certification in Colorado. Similar initiative campaigns are already underway in California, Michigan, Missouri, and Oregon, but Montana could be the best bet for making it a legalization initiative trifecta come November.