HELENA — The sponsor of an initiative to make all marijuana illegal in Montana conceded Tuesday that its backers probably didn’t get enough signatures to qualify it for the November ballot.
Steve Zabawa, who owns a car dealership in Billings, said the eleventh-hour effort generated widespread support, but supporters had only 20 days to gather signatures.
“I needed more advertising, more time,” Zabawa said Tuesday. “The last few days before the election we had a couple of hundred people hitting the website, but I just ran out of time.”
His SafeMontana group allowed people to download material from the Internet to use for gathering signatures.
To qualify for the ballot, backers of Initiative 174 needed to obtain the signatures of at least 24,175 voters by June 20, including 5 percent of the voters in at least 34 of the 100 state House districts. An official tally won’t be available until later this month.
The initiative said that drugs listed on Schedule I of the federal Controlled Substances Act now or in the future would be illegal under Montana law. Marijuana is on Schedule I of the federal Controlled Substances Act so it is illegal federally and would be illegal if I-174 had passed.
The measure, if it passed, also would have repealed the Montana Medical Marijuana Act, a voter-passed measure that in 2004 legalized marijuana for certain medical conditions.
In an email to some legislators, Zabawa said he doesn’t believe SafeMontana gathered enough signatures. He said he underestimated the time and effort needed to persuade people to sign petitions.
But Zabawa said SafeMontana will ask the members of the 2015 Montana Legislature to pass a referendum to put an identical measure on the 2016 ballot. That takes just a simple majority in both houses and does not require the governor’s signature.
The good news, he said, is the measure has already been written.
“We solicited the public, and the public loved what we had, which was no to illegal drugs,” Zabawa said. “The one thing that really stuck out is the green card system (for medical marijuana) is broken badly. Nobody’s monitoring it. All they’re doing is the registry.”
He said he waited until the last minute to file the proposal because of a similar last-minute anti-marijuana imitative effort run by Safe Community, Safe Kids in 2010, but it also failed to get the needed signatures. He said the 2010 group, led by Cherrie Brady, also of Billings, got an estimated 24,000 signatures in a week, but fell short.
“All the dispensaries were out on the corner at that time,” Zabawa said. “Dispensaries are in the back alleys now. The urgency to correct the problem was a lot stronger then.”
A leader on the other side of the issue disagreed with Zabawa on the need for the measure.
“Marijuana prohibition has never worked,” said Chris Lindsey, legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C., and formerly of Montana. “Polls now consistently show that the majority of Americans agree it is time to end marijuana prohibition for adults.
“Law enforcement officials’ time and resources would be better spent addressing serious crime instead of arresting and prosecuting adults for using marijuana. Our tax-paying citizens should not be forced to pay for it. It’s time for a practical solution, not a misdirected and costly continuation of the same failed policies.”