A judge in Kalispell has denied a petition to put a measure banning medical marijuana on the November ballot.

Secretary of State Linda McCulloch’s office says Initiative 176 received 20,038 certified signatures, around 4,000 short of qualifying. But sponsor Steve Zabawa, director of SafeMontana, disputed that number.

Zabawa asked Judge Heidi Ulbricht to require Flathead County officials to look for around 2,500 signatures he says they lost. Election officials said they already looked for misplaced signatures but didn’t find any.

Ulbricht ruled Zabawa and his fellow petitioners didn’t prove the county election department failed to perform their duty correctly. Even if they had, she said evidence showed officials already made a thorough search.

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Ulbricht also denied Zabawa’s request to accept about 3,500 signatures he said were improperly rejected. McCulloch said the Secretary of State’s office could not count them because Zabawa brought them in after a July 15 deadline.

The judge would have needed to rule in Zabawa’s favor on both issues to give I-176 the signatures it needed to make the ballot.

Zabawa says the decision is unfortunate, but he will not appeal it to the Montana Supreme Court. Instead, he says SafeMontana will focus its efforts on defeating I-182. That measure would remove some restrictions on medical marijuana, like a rule limiting providers to three patients each. That regulation will take effect Aug. 31, after a long court battle.

Zabawa told MTN he believes most Montanans don’t want more pot shops on the streets, and that’s what I-176 was intended to stop.​

Reporter: Jonathon Ambarian