HELENA — Montana voters will soon receive absentee ballots that include four citizen initiatives, the most in any election since 2010, alongside the top-of-the-ticket races for president, governor and U.S. House.
Early voting kicked off for state residents Friday as Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch mailed out 297,000 absentee ballots. Military and overseas voters previously received their ballots.
The ballot measures ask voters to decide whether to ban trapping on public lands, relax the state’s medical marijuana law, fund brain injury and disease research and insert a crime victims’ rights law into the state constitution.
Sponsors of that constitutional initiative, called Marsy’s Law, have spent more than $93,000 to run 487 ads on broadcast television through Oct. 10, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity. There have been no other broadcast TV ads for ballot measures in Montana, according to the analysis.
Initiative 182 would loosen many of the restrictions imposed on the state’s medical marijuana program by a 2011 state law, which was upheld earlier this year by the state Supreme Court. The new law forced the closure of dispensaries by limiting marijuana providers to three patients each.
Under the measure, marijuana dispensaries could reopen and doctors could certify more than 25 medical marijuana patients a year without being flagged by the state Board of Medical Examiners. Post-traumatic stress disorder would be added as a qualifying condition, and police would not be able to conduct surprise inspections of dispensaries.
Supporters of the measure say the restrictions that went into effect this summer have cut off thousands of patients from legal sources of marijuana, forcing them to buy the drug illegally, switch to prescription medication or leave the state entirely. They say the measure would allow safe access to marijuana for patients while requiring providers to be accountable to the state.
Opponents say the measure would re-establish a marijuana industry in Montana that would be abused, as in 2011 when there were more than 31,000 registered marijuana users in the state. They say the 2011 law curbed abuses by patients, providers and doctors and it should be left in place.
Constitutional Initiative 116, also known as Marsy’s Law, would amend the Montana Constitution to set rights for crime victims, including the right to participate in judicial proceedings, to be notified of developments in a case and to be notified when an offender or suspect is released from jail, among others.
The initiative is named after Marsy Nicholas, who was killed in 1983 by her ex-boyfriend. Nicholas’ brother, Henry Nicholas, is the major funder in the effort to expand the law passed in California in 2008 to other states.
Proponents say the measure would give crime victims equal rights under the Constitution as those who are accused of breaking the law.
Opponents say the measure is too vague, that Montana already has strong laws to protect crime victims and that the additional cost to cities and counties to enforce it is unknown.
Initiative 116 would make it a misdemeanor crime to trap or snare animals on public lands in the state. State wildlife officials would be allowed to use traps if other methods fail.
Supporters of the measure say that by restricting trapping to private lands, the risk of people, pets and wildlife being harmed by traps would be greatly reduced.
Opponents say the measure is backed by animal-rights groups whose goal is to completely ban trapping in the state. The measure would bar an effective measure for controlling predators that prey on the state’s wildlife and livestock, they say.
Initiative 181 would create the Montana Biomedical Research Authority, a panel that would award $200 million in grants over 10 years through state debt to fund research on brain diseases, brain injuries and mental illness.
Backers of the initiative say the research will be needed as Montana’s population ages and the state is hit by diseases such as Alzheimer’s, in addition to rising rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide by military veterans.
Opponents object to forcing the state to go into debt to pay for the measure. Diverting that money could harm other state-funded programs, from education to health care, and there would be little accountability for the money once the bonds are approved, they say.
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