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HELENA — A Flathead County judge has denied a request to put an initiative on the November ballot that would let Montanans vote to repeal the state’s Medical Marijuana Act.

Anti-marijuana group Safe Montana, led by Billings businessman Steve Zabawa, argued it collected enough signatures to bring I-176 to voters, but the Secretary of State’s office said the group fell more than 4,000 short.

I-176 would have made all drugs listed on Schedule I of the federal Controlled Substances Act illegal in Montana, eliminating differences between state and federal law with regards to the possession of marijuana.

Zabawa claimed the Flathead County Clerk and Recorder’s office didn’t submit 2,500 signatures it received this spring and 3,500 signatures were denied in error. Judge Heidi Ulbricht’s ruling only dealt with the signatures Zabawa claimed were missing.

On Friday Zabawa said the decision marks the end of the road for the initiative this election. Ballots are certified Thursday.

“That’s not enough time to appeal,” Zabawa said.

He had also asked Ulbricht to put the initiative on the 2018 ballot if it couldn’t make this year’s; the judge denied that as well.

Zabawa said when Ulbricht decided Friday she would only rule on the missing signatures and not the 3,500 he said were incorrectly rejected, he knew voters wouldn’t see I-176 this fall.

“We needed both to get to the ballot,” he said.

A group must get 5 percent of registered voters in at least half of the state’s counties and at least 5 percent of total registered voters statewide to get an initiative on the ballot.

The judge’s decision provides some insight into how Safe Montana believed signatures could have been lost. According to court documents, a signature gatherer named Jordan Loyda, who worked for LC Staffing in Kalispell, collected signatures for the group from Jan. 12-June 17.

In an affidavit Loyda said his visits to drop off signatures at the county elections offices “blended together” and he had trouble recalling specific dates.

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Loyda recalled in a court document he had “at least eight signature gatherer affidavits” notarized on April 27 and put on a temporary table at the county elections office. He didn’t say in court documents when these signatures were collected or how many signatures were included — details he could provide the court for other signature drop-offs.

At the end of April, Loyda said he asked the elections office why the signatures he dropped off earlier that month were not accounted for at the state level. He claims an election worker told him the petitions had not been processed or certified.

Safe Montana claimed 2,588 signatures were collected between Feb. 26 and April 18. Loyda said in an affidavit for the court he collected 2,038 signatures in all of March and April.

During the period when signatures would have been submitted, the Flathead County elections office changed locations several times. Election workers said in court documents that all items were reviewed, boxed, labeled and sealed during the moves and no documents were left behind.

According to court documents, Flathead County elections employees searched for but could not find any missing pages. Zabawa spent three or four hours in July auditing signatures at the election office but also couldn’t find the signatures he claimed were missing.

The judge said it must be presumed election officials did their job correctly and Zabawa didn’t show enough evidence that they didn’t. She also said the officials had already conducted an exhaustive search, which didn’t turn up the documents. Finally, Ulbricht said Safe Montana also failed to show that it collected enough signatures to make the November ballot.

In a press release late Monday, Zabawa said Safe Montana will “continue to make sure medical marijuana is handled by the FDA, doctors, pharmacists and hospitals and not by unregulated pot shops,” though the release didn’t lay out how the group will proceed.

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Reporter covering statewide issues for The Billings Gazette.