CannaVote 2016 Battle in the Big Sky

Photo by Marita McDaniel Volunteers collecting signatures at the Noxon Bridge on the west side of Sanders County.

Photo by Marita McDaniel
Volunteers collecting signatures at the Noxon Bridge on the west side of Sanders County.

Ever since 2004 when 62% of Montanans voted to pass the Montana Medical Marijuana Act, there has been a silent war building up. Not everyone is as happy with marijuana in Montana as one would think. The ones who are unhappy have a loud voice with a lot of money to spend.

After 2004 everything was fine in the world of Montana medical marijuana. Right up until around 2009, there were less than 7,000 patients signed up with the program. Coincidentally, US Deputy Attorney General David Ogden decreed the federal government, under direction from the Obama Administration, wouldn’t go after anyone working under their respective state’s medical marijuana program. As long as they were abiding by the state medical marijuana law, they were good to go.

Around the same time there was another group making the rounds in what the media was calling Cannabis Caravans. This was a group of doctors and medical marijuana advocates roaming around Montana helping people get signed up to receive medical marijuana cards. This increased the medical marijuana card holder numbers to 29,948 patients and 4,848 providers by March 2011.

Photo by Jon Miller and Jenn Engellant J&J Photography, Billings Montana

Photo by Jon Miller and Jenn Engellant
J&J Photography, Billings Montana


This explosion in card carrying cannabis consumers did not go unnoticed.  An interim legislative committee was formed, and they started listening to all of the complaints people had about the program.


The state medical board releaseda position paper stating that doctors who recommend medical marijuana must follow all the same rules and standards as the rest of the doctors prescribing medicine.  


Shortly thereafter House Bill 161 came onto the scene. This was created to repeal Montana’s I-148 in effect completely removing the Montana medical marijuana system. After a 6-6 tie in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer wouldn’t sign it. Following their failure to fully repeal the law, three members of that Senate Judiciary Committee created Senate Bill 423 deemed ‘repeal light’.  This would basically replace the existing I-148 with stricter regulations and licensing requirements. Among others, SB 423 would require patients to see their doctor four times in six months, and also pay for a second recommendation from a pain specialist otherwise known as Oxycontin dispensers.


The alternative to SB 423 was House Bill 175. This would send the whole mess back to the ballot for a vote in November of 2012 where the good people of Montana would choose whether to repeal completely, or go back to the way things were before any of this nonsense started, with I-148.


That’s when the raids started happening, and things got real. A little too real. On March 15th, 2011, FBI and DEA agents executed 26 search warrants at medical marijuana dispensaries and grows. They said this was in response to all of the caregiver to caregiver transacting going on, and approximately six weeks after US Attorney Melinda Haag released the Haag Memo. This clarified that contrary to what the Ogden Memo stated the Federal government’s position on marijuana has not changed. A core priority of the department is to disrupt and prosecute marijuana commerce even if such activities are permitted under state law.


Confusing yes? Just confusing enough to get SB-423 through. The Governor didn’t actually sign it, but he did let it sit on his desk for the full ten days, in an apparent act of protest. After the ten days had passed SB-423 became the new law of the land. This is where a lot of Montana patients say some shady politics are going down.

Photo by Jon Miller and Jenn Engellant J&J Photography, Billings Montana

Photo by Jon Miller and Jenn Engellant
J&J Photography, Billings Montana


Activist Sandra Sutherland expresses her frustration, “The way people’s health issues are being battered around like now you see it, now you don’t, shows complete disrespect for the health needs of the people of this state. It’s also destructive to economic supports in the form of doctors and businesses set up to help those who need it. The thought that the legislature could overrule the voice of the people and the needs of patients is completely reprehensible.”


Under SB-423, providers could no longer charge for services unless it was to recoup their license and application fees. It also restricted the number of patients a provider could care for to three, and disallowed co-ops. These are just a few of the changes. This led to of course, more litigation.


Some members of the industry sued to block SB-423, and state District Judge James Reynolds blocked a few of the more ridiculous rules. These included being able to charge patients for services, the ability to advertise and allowing caregivers to have more than three patients. How many other businesses does government interrupt or shut down because they have too many customers?


At the beginning of 2013, Judge Reynolds confirmed his original ruling, then in January 2015 made it permanent.  Unsatisfied, Montana Attorney General Tim Fox appealed to the Montana State Supreme Court. As a result, on February 25, 2016, they ruled against Judge Reynolds’ initial ruling, which basically puts SB-423 back in full effect.


This is where Montana is today. One side trying to abolish medical marijuana using reefer madness scare tactics.  The other side is torn between trying to get a medical initiative on the ballot, a recreational initiative, or both.


With each side hustling to get enough signatures to qualify their initiatives for the ballot this November, an even more interesting story reveals itself. Who are these people? Why are they so against medical or recreational cannabis in the great state of Montana?


Steve Zabawa, founder of Safe Montana and owner of Rimrock Auto Group, has made it a personal goal to remove medical marijuana from Montana.


Speaking to the Missoulian in 2014, Zabawa states, “If it’s an illegal drug by the federal government, it should be illegal in Montana. The federal government trumps the state, so why do we want to put our citizens in jeopardy.”


In March 2011, the Billings Gazette ran an article entitled, “Profits, principles mixed in medical marijuana debate.” In this article, Ed Kemmick describes how a gentleman named Mark Higgins was actually approached by not only Steve Zabawa, but also Rep. James Knox (R-Billings), about getting into business. Apparently James Knox helped with the domain for Billings Medical Marijuana, and Steve Zabawa was going to lease the building space to Higgins. Higgins turned down the deal with Zabawa because he wantedten percent of the business.

Photo by Jon Miller and Jenn Engellant J&J Photography, Billings Montana

Photo by Jon Miller and Jenn Engellant
J&J Photography, Billings Montana


Steve Zabawa is quoted in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle as saying, “Medical marijuana has allowed children more access to the drug and that smoking marijuana has led to car accidents, depression and lung cancer.”


On the other side, many activists have been in the middle of this back and forth political tug of war since the very beginning.


Anthony Varriano and his Cycling for Sensible Drug Policy is currently out gathering signatures to pass Constitutional Initiative 115 (CI-115) and Initiative 178 (I-178) to legalize marijuana in Montana. They say legalization for adults 21 and older would generate $37 million from taxes in the first five years that would contribute directly to the state General Fund, half of which is spent on education.


The Montana Cannabis Industry Association (MTCIA) also has a statutory initiative in the works to put medical back on the ballot. We also have people taking it into their own hands to replace those in charge who are not echoing the will of the citizens. Elizabeth Pincolini is currently running for Montana House District 43. Why? Because these people need a voice.


What can we learn from all of this?  In the end, what was approved by the voters can be repealed by the voters.  All it takes is money and will by the opposition.  It is a potentially endless tug of war.