Pipe dream? 

Montana cannabis advocates push to end prohibition

Unwilling to give up after a series of legal and electoral defeats in Montana, cannabis proponents are hoping to capitalize on this month's marijuana legalization in Washington and Colorado and use it to double down under the Big Sky.

"I think it's become clear that medical marijuana patients will not be protected until we end prohibition of marijuana for all purposes," says Bob Brigham, who led the state's No on IR 124 campaign, which sought unsuccessfully to toss out last year's legislative changes to the state's medical marijuana law.

On Nov. 15, Brigham, Montana Cannabis Industry Association President Chris Lindsey and Barb Trego of Helena filed the first round of paperwork required to put marijuana decriminalization on the 2014 ballot. The new initiative will mirror CI 110, which failed to garner enough signatures to make it onto the 2012 ballot. Cannabis proponents say that while drafting the first initiative, the objections of state officials forced them to repeatedly tweak the language, shortening the time they had to collect signatures. Brigham says this year's early start better ensures that won't happen again.

"It will allow us to start collecting signatures in June," Brigham says. "It will allow us, really, an 18-month period of aggressive grassroots organizing."

The cannabis industry says it sees no other recourse than to focus on persuading voters to legalize the drug after working unsuccessfully during multiple legislative sessions to find a compromise with state lawmakers. Brigham calls it liberating, because marijuana proponents no longer feel like they must use a centrist approach to sway legislators.

"We don't have to fight defensively anymore," he says. "There's nothing more they can do to us."

Republican Sen. Jeff Essman sponsored the 2011 legislation that significantly reeled in the state's original medical marijuana law. Among the major changes in that legislation were limiting marijuana providers to three state-registered patients and removing any profit from their business.

Essman says he has no intention this session to further tweak the law, nor has he heard his colleagues discuss the issue as a priority. "I've not heard a lot of talk in the hallway about it," he says.

There are a handful of marijuana-related bills pending at the Montana Legislature. Among them is one from Sen. Dave Wanzenreid, a Missoula Democrat who aims to prepare the state if the federal government reclassifies the drug from its current Schedule 1 tier—a classification that includes drugs that are considered dangerous and without medical value—to a lower tier. "I think it's necessary to continue to talk about it," Wanzenreid says. He acknowledges, however, "We may not have the votes now."

click to enlarge Cannabis proponents filed the first round of paperwork last week to put marijuana decriminalization on the 2014 ballot. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Cannabis proponents filed the first round of paperwork last week to put marijuana decriminalization on the 2014 ballot.

In the meantime, the cumulative effect of the state's legislative impasse, federal law enforcement intervention against marijuana dispensaries and passage of IR 124 has left Montana behind more progressive states, says the Cannabis Industry Association's Lindsey. "Montana is the only state that's lost ground on marijuana issues," he says.

Lindsey was in Denver on Nov. 8, two days after Colorado voters made the historic decision to end marijuana prohibition. He spoke to lawyers, entrepreneurs and investors who wielded laptops, tablets and smartphones at the National Marijuana Business Conference. They hardly looked like a fringe group, and that pleased Lindsey, who's worked for years as an attorney defending Montana's marijuana users.

If the federal government does not block marijuana legalization in Colorado before the law goes into effect Jan. 5, individuals over the age of 21 will be able to possess up to six cannabis plants and an ounce of marijuana. The Colorado Center on Law and Policy estimates the state's cannabis industry will generate an annual $23.3 million in sales tax alone.

Lindsey points out that prosecutors in Colorado and Washington are already dropping misdemeanor marijuana possession charges and, in doing so, saving money that can be used elsewhere. "It goes to the heart of state budgets," he says.

Not everyone is sold on Lindsey's budget pitch. Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir, who chairs the Missoula Area High Intensity Drug Task Force's executive board, says it's important to look at the broader economic impact of decriminalization.

"This is not an industry that you can open the doors to tax it, control it and not expect to see huge social costs," Muir says.

Muir acknowledges that marijuana legalization might trigger savings from a decrease in incarceration rates. But, he asks, what about the inevitable costs associated with policing a growing contingent of stoned drivers?

Alcohol is already responsible for far too many crimes, Muir says. He just doesn't see the point of adding another drug to the mix.

"I'm okay with saying there's a strong similarity between beer and wine," Muir says. "But my point is this, we're not doing a great job as a society of keeping ourselves in hand with beer and wine."

In the months leading up to Montana's 2014 election, Lindsey will be urging opponents to keep an eye on Colorado and Washington. It is possible to tax and regulate marijuana and not experience significant negative fallout, he says. Just watch, he says.

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