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2012 voters to decide fate of new medical pot law

2012 voters to decide fate of new medical pot law

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Medical Marijuana

In this Saturday, Aug. 13, 2011, photo, a group of people stand on the corner of 4th Avenue and 1st Street in Havre, Mont., to gather signatures for a petition to put Senate Bill 423 back on the ballot. (AP Photo/Havre Daily News, Nikki Carlson)

HELENA — The secretary of state’s office said Monday that medical-marijuana advocates have collected enough signatures to let voters next year retain or reject the stricter law, passed earlier this year by the Legislature, regulating the industry.

A group called Patients for Reform — Not Repeal led the successful petition effort to put the new medical marijuana law on the November 2012 ballot.

Secretary of State Linda McCulloch’s office already had tabulated 26,778 signatures through Monday in support of the referendum and said 5 percent of the registered voters in 49 of the 100 state House districts had signed it.

Those totals exceeded the minimum requirements of 24,337 signatures and 5 percent of the voters in at least 34 House districts.

Meanwhile, a separate effort to have a referendum on the 2011 revision of Montana’s eminent domain law apparently fell far short of qualifying. Backers conceded last week they lacked sufficient signatures to qualify. As of Monday, the secretary of state’s office had tabulated just 3,082 signatures and it qualified in three legislative districts

The deadline to turn in signatures to county election officials was Friday. The counties must turn in their tallies to the secretary of state’s office by late October.

In a statement, Patients for Reform — Not Repeal said it had collected more than 46,000 signatures and met the 5 percent minimum in more than 60 House districts. It said county election offices have processed slightly more than 33,000 of the 46,000-plus signatures.

However, the group failed to meet a higher threshold of signatures to suspend the 2011 law immediately until voters decide its fate next year. They would need signatures by at least 15 percent of registered voters in at least 51 legislative districts.

“We are thrilled that our volunteers collected over 46,000 signatures and we are seeing so many House districts fall into place,” said Rose Habib of Missoula, the group’s volunteer coordinator. “We are all proud to have been part of making history in Montana.”

At issue is Senate Bill 423, by Sen. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, which repealed the voter-passed 2004 initiative legalizing the use of marijuana for some medical purposes and put in place tighter restrictions. The law makes it harder for people to get medical marijuana cards and squeezes the profits out of the industry, saying suppliers can’t advertise or

sell the drug.

Essmann’s bill came after the number of medical marijuana cardholders in Montana skyrocketed from about 4,000 in September 2009 to more than 27,000 in December 2010. The number peaked at more than 31,000 in May, but dropped to about 26,500 in August.

The Montana Cannabis Industry Association and others challenged SB423 in District Court in Helena. Parts of SB423 were temporarily blocked by a Helena district judge in late June. Both the association and the attorney general’s office are appealing portions of District Judge James Reynolds’ decision to the Montana Supreme Court.

“This new program does not work,” said Sarah Baugh of Helena, a patient and spokeswoman for Patients for Reform — Not Repeal. “Seriously ill patients are having trouble getting access to their medicine in the wake of SB423.”

The eminent domain law that passed this year said that any company that had acquired a certificate under the state Major Facility Siting Act to build a transmission line can exercise the power of eminent domain to condemn property. The ability to do that had been called into question by a 2010 state District Court decision in Cut Bank.

Eminent domain is the authority to condemn property for a defined “public use” such as an electric power line, pipeline, railroad or highway.

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