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A press conference to charge Attorney General Steve Bullock of botching medical marijuana ballot language quickly soured on pot opponents who found themselves accused of blowing smoke.

The anti-medical marijuana group Safe Communities, Safe Kids was staging a press conference Wednesday to announce a political practice complaint against Steve Bullock, when gate-crashing medical marijuana proponents and even a member of Bullock’s staff interrupted to deride the charges as election foolery.

“You’re trying to pull a political stunt using a mechanism that is not set up for this purpose,” said Jim Molloy, an assistant attorney general to Bullock.

Bullock, a Democrat, is running for governor against Republican Rick Hill. And ballot language his office vetted for legality and fairness has been settled for nearly two months. So, with Election Day just three weeks out, the complaint by Safe Communities, Safe Kids was nothing more than political theater to give Hill a boost, Molloy said.

Molloy pointed out that Steve Zabawa, a Billings businessman, who supports Safe Communities, Safe Kids, and attended the press conference, had just four weeks ago held a fundraiser, featuring Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, for Hill at Zabawa’s Billings Mercedes Benz dealership.

The 11 a.m. press conference was held at Jake's West End restaurant.

State law provides a 10-day window for challenging ballot language before the ballots go to press. No one bothered to challenge the ballot language when something could have been done about it, said Molloy, a ballot language expert who took the day off work to attend the press conference and cry foul.

“We didn’t realize it was going to be such a big problem until the ballots came out,” said Cherie Brady, of Safe Communities, Safe Kids. Once absentee ballots ware issued Oct. 9, Brady said her group began receiving calls from voters unsure about how to fill their ballots out.

This election, voters are asked either to affirm a medical marijuana reform law passed by 2011 Montana Legislature or revert to a medical marijuana passed by voters in 2004.

The decision exists, because the 2011 Legislature concluded that a sudden boom in registered medical marijuana users and subsequent retail industry was not what voters intended in 2004 when more than 60 percent of ballots supported allowing marijuana use by people with debilitating medical conditions.

The 2011 law, known as Senate Bill 423, repealed the 2004 law and put tighter limits on who qualifies for medical marijuana, and also set terms for growing the medicine. The new law prohibited growing medical marijuana for profit and allowed growers to only raise marijuana for three patients.

The marijuana ballot issue appears as “Initiative Referendum No. 124.” A vote “for” the initiative preserves the 2011 Legislature’s law. A vote “against” returns Montana to the voter-approved 2004 law. Complete repeal is not an option.

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As Molloy argued that Safe Communities, Safe Kids’ complaint was specious, he also said that lawmakers, who drafted the 2011 law, were consulted about the ballot language and agreed. Those lawmakers included Rep. Cary Smith, R-Billings, and Republican Sen. Jeff, Essmann, also of Billings. Smith’s wife is a member of Safe Communities, Safe Kids. Essmann attended the press conference.

Essmann said he agreed with the ballot language when it was presented to him and thought it made sense. However, now Essmann said he realizes voters don’t have his level of understanding about Senate Bill 423 and might get confused.

Essmann also used the press conference to accuse the Montana Cannabis Industry Association for misrepresenting his position on the law he authored. Essmann said the distortions were made in radio ads encouraging people to vote against IR-124.

The senator was quickly contradicted by Elizabeth Pincolini of the Montana Cannabis Industry Association who said her group had done no radio advertizing.

Another group, Patients for Reform, took credit for the ads, but said Essmann was wrong about being misrepresented.

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.