The Fight for Marijuana Legalization in Montana and Beyond

Welcome to BallotReady’s series on ballot measures in Election 2016!

Nine states from Massachusetts to Arizona will have marijuana related proposals on their ballots this November, ranging from expanding medical marijuana access to legalization of recreational use. Proponents in Missouri are still fighting just to get their initiative on the ballot.

But of all the states debating medical marijuana this fall, Montana has emerged as one of the most contentious. The state has a complicated history on the issue. It first legalized medical use of the drug with 62% of the popular vote in 2004, but then passed a 2011 state legislature bill, known as Senate Bill 423, that severely limited access to medical marijuana.

After five years of legal battles between the pro and anti-Senate Bill 423 camps, this February, the Montana Supreme Court upheld most of the restrictions in the bill.

On August 31, Senate Bill 423 finally came into effect, and, among other changes, limited medical marijuana providers to no more than three patients. As a result, many providers have been forced to closed their doors, unable to remain financially viable.

The next of Montana’s battles over medical marijuana will happen on the November ballot. Nine different ballot initiatives related to marijuana use were submitted to the Montana Secretary of State’s office, ranging from legalizing recreational use for those over 21 to removing certain limits on medical marijuana.

In an interesting twist, the two marijuana initiatives that accumulated the most signatures directly oppose each other. Initiative I-176, supported by the group known as Safe Montana, proposed wholly eliminating the state’s medical marijuana program by requiring that all drugs illegal under federal law be made illegal in Montana. Initiative I-182, on the other hand, removes many of Senate Bill 423’s requirements, allows marijuana to be prescribed to those suffering from PTSD, and is sponsored by the Montana Cannabis Industry Association

At one point in the summer, it appeared as if both initiatives would appear on the fall ballot, leaving open the unprecedented possibility that the conflicting proposals would simultaneously be enacted by voters. A spokesman for the Montana Attorney General’s office said that even they didn’t know what state law would address such a scenario. However, in the end, I-176 came up just short of the signatures needed to appear on the ballot, qualifying in 33 of the 34 legislative districts.

So what’s next? The demise of I-176 by no means guarantees a bright future for medical marijuana in Montana. Currently, Senate Bill 423 remains in place and the industry has already seen an 89% decline since its peak in June 2011. A clerical error in I-182 suggests that the 3-patient limit may not be lifted until June 30 next year even if the initiative passes. And whether it passes or not remains perilous, as Safe Montana has turned its attention to defeating the ballot measure and pro-I-182 fundraising lags far behind that of the successful 2004 legalization push.

Tune into BallotReady for more coverage of medical marijuana ballot amendments across the country! Next, we’ll be looking into Arkansas, and how a governor who used to run the Drug Enforcement Agency is fighting against medical marijuana.

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By Eileen Li, BallotReady Blog Intern