Montana campaign over marijuana legalization measures taking shape

Posted at 7:12 PM, Sep 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-12 11:39:35-04

HELENA — The campaign over marijuana legalization in Montana is taking shape, as opponents of a pair of legalization initiatives officially launched a committee against them.

In the November elections, Montana voters will consider Initiative 190 and Constitutional Initiative 118, both proposed by New Approach Montana. I-190 would set up the framework for a recreational marijuana system in Montana, including a 20% tax on sales. CI-118 would amend the Montana Constitution to let the state prohibit marijuana sales to people younger than 21.

This week, opponents announced the creation of Wrong for Montana. The group is currently setting up billboards against I-190 and CI-118 in places like Great Falls, Billings, Bozeman, Helena, Missoula and Kalispell.

The group’s treasurer is Steve Zabawa, a Billings businessman who has been involved with several efforts over the last decade to put greater restrictions on marijuana in Montana. He says their campaign will highlight the negative effects they believe recreational marijuana has had in other states.

“All you have to do is go to Colorado for a test site,” said Zabawa. “They’ve been up and running now for eight years, and if you look at the traffic accidents, you look at the emergency room, you look at the vagrants, you look at the activity in the black market as well as the regular market down there, it has just exploded.”

The committee is also raising concerns about the increased availability of marijuana-infused products that may be attractive to children.

Wrong for Montana has received support from groups like the Montana Family Foundation, the Montana Contractors Association and the national organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which has backed efforts against legalization in states like North Dakota.

Leaders with New Approach Montana say they expected opposition to their initiatives. Pepper Petersen, the group’s political director, said opponents were “grossly misinterpreting” the data from Colorado, and that he believed Montanans would recognize the criticisms as exaggeration.

“We know what Montanans think about marijuana because we went out and spoke to them over the last two years,” Petersen said. “We had very close conversations, and so we’re very aware of what Montanans want out of this regulation, and it went into the writing of it.”

A state financial analysis has suggested a recreational marijuana system could raise more than $38.5 million a year in tax revenue by 2025. Petersen said that could be a valuable source of revenue for the state, especially amid the uncertainty after COVID-19.

New Approach Montana has received much of its funding from two national committees: $2.9 million from the North Fund and nearly $1.9 million from the New Approach PAC.

Voters will soon begin seeing more advertising in this campaign. New Approach has already spent $2.3 million to reserve time for TV ads in October and November, and Petersen said they will also be investing in digital ads. He said the new opposition group hasn’t affected their strategy.

“It doesn’t change our plans at all,” he said. “Ultimately we just need to get our message out there that you need to vote for both initiatives; I-190 and CI-118 are complementary.”

In addition to billboards, Zabawa said Wrong for Montana is planning digital ads of its own, as well as on-the-ground volunteers. He said he’s not sure if they’ll be able to get on TV, but that he believes their arguments will be heard regardless.

“Our message will be well-received, it’ll be shared, and it’ll be taken from family to family,” he said. “I believe that, at the end of the day, the legalization issue will go away in the state of Montana.”

Also this week, the Montana Contractors Association announced it was endorsing U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, the Republican candidate for governor. Leaders cited his opposition to the recreational marijuana proposal.

Gianforte’s campaign released a statement to MTN on the congressman’s position on the initiatives.

“Ultimately, voters will decide I-190 at the ballot box, though given public health experts' concerns about the impact of recreational marijuana use on mental health and suicide, he will vote against it,” said a spokesperson for Gianforte.

Gianforte’s Democratic opponent is Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney. Cooney’s campaign also released a statement on the initiatives.

“Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney supports allowing Montanans to decide this issue and believes we need a common-sense strategy that suits Montana's needs to address it,” said a spokesperson.