Anti-pot Initiative Sponsor Gives Up Montana Ballot Effort

Claimed thousands of signatures gathered for the measure had been lost or improperly invalidated

By Molly Priddy

HELENA — The sponsor of a proposed initiative to repeal Montana’s medical marijuana law said Wednesday he won’t appeal a judge’s refusal to place the measure on November’s ballot, but instead will focus on defeating a separate initiative to expand medical pot distribution.

Billings car dealer Steve Zabawa told The Associated Press in an interview that there isn’t enough time for him to appeal to the Montana Supreme Court before Secretary of State Linda McCulloch’s office certifies the ballots and sends them for printing.

Instead, he said his Safe Montana group will focus on defeating I-182, a ballot measure that would ease restrictions on medical marijuana distribution.

Zabawa made the comments a day after District Judge Heidi Ulbricht denied his request to intervene and order McCulloch to place his initiative on the ballot.

The initiative fell more than 4,100 signatures short of qualifying. Zabawa claimed thousands of signatures gathered for the measure had been lost or improperly invalidated.

“We’ll spend all our efforts now making sure people know what I-182 is all about,” he said.

He also plans to lobby the state Legislature in 2017 to pass a bill that bans marijuana and all Schedule 1 drugs in Montana, and may consider another ballot initiative in 2018.

Zabawa’s measure, known as I-176, sought to repeal Montana’s medical marijuana law and declare that any drug illegal under federal law is illegal under state law. The result would have been a ban on marijuana use and possession in the state, including the 13,170 medical marijuana patients on Montana’s registry.

Zabawa spent $92,000 of his own money in the failed effort to place the measure on the ballot, according to campaign finance records filed with the Commissioner of Political Practices Office. He said he spent an additional $100,000 of his own money on audits and legal fees to contest the rejected and missing signatures.

Ulbricht in her order did not address Zabawa’s argument that county officials across the state improperly rejected about 3,200 signatures he said came from registered voters.

The judge also denied Zabawa’s requests for Flathead County officials to conduct an exhaustive search of their offices for more than 2,000 missing signature and for the initiative to be put on the 2016 ballot or the 2018 ballot whether those signatures are found or not.

Flathead County election officials are entitled to the presumption that they performed their duties, and county officials had already unsuccessfully searched for the signatures, Ulbricht wrote.

“Petitioners failed to introduce evidence that I-176 garnered the requisite number of verified signatures to be placed on the November 2016 ballot,” Ulbricht’s order stated. “Without the requisite number of verified signatures, the Secretary of State does not have a clear legal duty to place I-176 on the ballot.”

Zabawa still contends enough signatures were gathered to place the measure on the ballot Last week, he attempted to re-submit the 3,200 rejected signatures to McCulloch’s office after conducting an audit to show they were signed by registered voters.

McCulloch rejected the effort, writing him back that her office could not tabulate the signatures because the deadline for submittal was July 15.

Secretary of State spokeswoman Emily Dean did not immediately return a call for comment Wednesday morning.