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Montana prohibitionists ask Supreme Court to kick legalization off ballot

Published on October 21, 2020
With a legalization measure up 10 points in the polls, prohibitionists are pleading with the state Supreme Court to invalidate the measure entirely. (AdobeStock)

With two weeks to go until Election Day, and with a marijuana legalization measure showing a 10-point lead in the polls, prohibitionists are making a last-ditch attempt to keep the initiative off the November ballot.

On Tuesday, Oct. 20, the organization Wrong for Montana filed a petition with the state Supreme Court to have Initiative 190 deemed void and removed from the ballot, even though the measure has already been deemed legally sufficient by the state’s attorney general’s office. Furthermore, thousands of Montanans have already cast their ballots by mail.

The anti-legalization group argues that the initiative is unconstitutional because it allocates tax revenue raised by the program for specific purposes. Proponents of the measure have demonstrated that the initiative merely proposes how to allocate the funds; the state Legislature would have the final say on how to distribute them.

Trying the ol’ Nebraska Hail-Mary

The lawsuit in Montana replicates a legal strategy successfully employed by Republican prohibitionists in Nebraska this year: If you can’t get the votes, try to get anti-legalization judges to undermine the voice of the people.

“Opposition campaigns have been spreading misinformation across Montana for weeks,” Pepper Petersen, spokesperson for New Approach Montana, said in a recent interview. “This lawsuit accusation, this announcement by the lawyers is just the latest chapter in their misinformation campaign. The people in Montana will see right through it as they continue to vote yes on CI-118 and I-190.”

“We all talked about where we would like to see the money go,” he added in a separate interview. “That’s what you do when you bring initiatives, but it’s up to the Legislature to make that decision.”

Election 2020: Montana cannabis legalization guide

An aggressive anti-legalization campaign

Wrong for Montana was launched this September by Steve Zabawa, a Montana car salesman with a long history of opposing cannabis reform in the state. Vitriol against Zabawa is so widespread that a pro-cannabis Facebook group dedicated to boycotting his business has more than 5,000 active members.

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Since launching the organization, Zabawa has tried a number of different strategies to attack the legalization initiative. Earlier this month, Wrong for Montana filed a complaint with the state’s Commissioner of Political Practices to require the North Fund, a mysterious 501(c)(4) that has given nearly $5 million to the legalization campaign, to disclose its donors.

Wizards and puppets

In a comment left on the page of a Montana Public Radio story about the donation, Zabawa himself wrote “Why would bring Big Marijuana, The Wizard behind the North Fund’s $4.7 million out of state money and wipe out our current marijuana 260 dispensaries and 38,000 green card holders? The wizard and his three puppets Pepper [Petersen], Dave [Lewis] and Ted [Dick] are selling Montanans out to out of state big money to line their pockets!”

Cannabis cowboys: A 900-mile trip with Montana’s marijuana legalization campaign

Zabawa has additionally argued that the anticipated revenue generated by legal cannabis—an estimated $50 million annually once the program is up and running—is merely a “drop in the bucket.”

“If it was bringing in a billion dollars, OK maybe it’s worth it,” he told Montana Public Radio. “But when it only brings in one little drop into the bucket and you’re creating all these other ills, I don’t think it’s worth it.”

When you’re losing at the polls, file a lawsuit

Wrong for Montana’s lawsuit doesn’t seem to reflect the opinion of most Montanans: a poll released last week by Montana State University concluded that 49% of voters support legalization and 39% are opposed. 

In other words, only 1% of undecided voters need to support the measure for it to pass.

Tax revenue seen as a big plus

Legalization has found widespread support in part because of New Approach Montana’s proposed allocations of the revenue, which is estimated to total $236 million by 2026. The group recommends using half of it to support public lands and environmental restoration projects; the other half would be split equally between the state’s general fund, funding for municipalities that permit cannabis sales, veterans’ services, substance abuse treatment and care services for disabled and elderly Montanans. 

“For decades and decades the public lands and conservation communities have been trying to find places where we have established strings of revenue to fund our public lands,” Montana Conservation Voters Executive Director Aaron Murphy told the Missoulianearlier this month. “When this opportunity came along as a very smart and timely solution to that, these organizations saw all the same things and said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to get behind this.'”

Wasting $11,000 per arrest

This week’s lawsuit comes on the heels of a new study highlighting the absurdity of marijuana arrests in Montana: 99% of arrests involved non-violent offenders, indigenous Montanans were twice as likely to be arrested as their white peers, and Black Montanans were five times more likely to be arrested than white residents.

The study concluded that the state spends nearly $11,000 per arrest.

“It shows that Montana is wasting a lot of tax dollars,” said Petersen, “on something that should have never been illegal in the first place.”

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Max Savage Levenson
Max Savage Levenson
Max Savage Levenson likely has the lowest cannabis tolerance of any writer on the cannabis beat. He also writes about music for Pitchfork, Bandcamp and other bespectacled folk. He co-hosts The Hash podcast. His dream interview is Tyler the Creator.
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