By Phillip Smith
Even with the last voter signatures due to be turned in Friday afternoon, it now appears that an initiative referendum campaign to undo regressive changes in Montana's medical marijuana law will be on the November 2012 ballot. Organizers for IR-124 told the Chronicle Wednesday they had already turned in 40,000 signatures, well in excess of the 24,337 valid voter signatures needed to make the ballot and that they expected to turn in thousands more by Friday's 5:00 pm deadline.
As of Wednesday, the Montana Secretary of State's office reported that 19,973 valid signatures had been received, but that is a lagging indicator. In Montana, signatures are handed in first to county officials, who validate the signatures, and then send them on to Helena. As many as 10,000 gathered signatures are being examined by county officials now, with more still coming in the next couple of days.
"We probably have about 10,000 yet to be processed, and we'll give them another few thousand between now and then," said Rose Habib of Patients for Reform -- Not Repeal, which is spearheading the effort. "Signature gathering has gone really well, and we're confident we will make the ballot. We're just waiting for the counties to finish counting what we're giving them.
Montana law also requires initiatives to get signatures from 5% of the voters in at least 34 of the state's 100 legislative districts. So far, the initiative has done that in 31 districts, and the campaign is confident it will pass that hurdle as well.
The almost all-volunteer effort -- there were a handful of paid signature gatherers in the last two weeks -- was a success because people were strongly motivated, Habib said. "People feel very strongly they were not represented by their legislature, and what they do and how they earn a living and how they medicate themselves is something that is completely defensible and needs to be dealt with responsibly by the legislature," she said.
"Things look really good. It's pretty amazing what a volunteer effort has been able to do," said Matt Leow of M+R Strategic Services, a political consultancy firm brought in to help manage the campaign. "We've worked on many, many of these campaigns, and we've never seen anything like the volunteer effort here."
"By all accounts, this has been an impressive volunteer effort," said Kate Chowela of the Montana Cannabis Industry Association, which had begun working toward an initiative earlier this year. "No one wants to say much before all the numbers are in, but we are confident this will make the ballot."
The initiative campaign is in response to the Republican-controlled state legislature, which first passed a bill to completely repeal the state's voter-approved medical marijuana law, and then, after it was vetoed by Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D), passed another bill, Senate Bill 423, essentially gutting the state's medical marijuana distribution system. That bill was challenged in court, and parts of it were enjoined, but other onerous portions of it remain in effect.
That will be the case until and unless Montanans vote for the initiative next November. Organizers could have attempted to repeal the law outright through the initiative process, but that would have required three times the number of signatures needed to get this measure on the ballot, and that was beyond the reach of the ill-funded, nearly all-volunteer effort.
"This new program does not work. Seriously ill patients are having trouble getting access to their medicine in the wake of SB 423," said Sarah Baugh, a patient and spokesperson for Patients for Reform -- Not Repeal. "Montanans agree that patients with serious conditions should have access to medical marijuana and that government has no business interfering in medical decisions between those patients and their doctors. SB 423 goes too far and harms patients’ rights."
The legislative attack on medical marijuana this year came after the state's program mushroomed in the wake of the Obama administration's October 2009 Depart of Justice memo suggesting that the federal government would not interfere with people following state law in states where medical marijuana is legal.
Along with a rapid growth in the number of registered card holders, the state saw an explosion of storefront dispensaries, as well as some operators willing to push the envelope in ways that deeply affronted some conservative Montanans. Medical marijuana caravans crisscrossing the state, doctors' recommendations issued remotely online, and defiant public pot-smoking displays didn't play well in parts of the state.
That led to intense debates about how to deal with medical marijuana in Montana, and after a strong Republican showing in the November 2010 elections sent a large Tea Party contingent to Helena, the legislature acted more like a wrecking ball than a renovation service when it came to the medical marijuana program.
"When those folks got to the statehouse, they were all about their ideological and moral imperatives," said Habib. "They wanted to impose their world-view on everyone, and there was some real railroading going on. We don’t think that what they did was representative of what Montana voters believe, but the legislature still stands by its position."
The shenanigans of some Montana medical marijuana industry players may have helped swing the pendulum toward the forces of reaction in 2010 and so far this year, but the heavy-handedness and overreaching of the Republican legislature is succeeding in swinging it back in a more progressive direction. The impressive volunteer campaign to make the ballot is one indication of that, but the real proof that the climate has changed will have to wait for November 2012.