Montana’s Cannabis Legalization Campaign Launches Signature Drive Despite COVID-19 Setbacks: Legalization Watch

Montana’s Cannabis Legalization Campaign Launches Signature Drive Despite COVID-19 Setbacks: Legalization Watch

After losing a court battle to collect signatures electronically, New Approach Montana kicked off a statewide signature drive to get two complementary adult-use cannabis legalization measures on the state’s 2020 ballot.

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May 11, 2020

Several states looked poised to vote on cannabis legalization this year, and while some secured initiatives on their ballots before the coronavirus hit the U.S., a campaign in Montana was the latest to falter in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

New Approach Montana is making a comeback, however, after officially launching its statewide signature drive May 9, as Montana loosened some of its restrictions in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.

“As our state reopens for business, we must also reopen for democracy,” Pepper Petersen, New Approach Montana’s political director, said in a public statement. “Our signature drive will allow Montana voters to exercise their constitutional right to a ballot initiative in a safe and responsible way.”

Early this year, before COVID-19 reached the U.S., the state approved the campaign’s two complementary ballot initiatives for circulation.

Statutory Initiative 190 would establish a system to regulate and tax cannabis for adult use, while Constitutional Initiative 118 would authorize Montana to set the legal age for consumption at 21.

The statutory initiative is a comprehensive legalization policy that would allow the state to license cultivators, product manufacturers, testing facilities and dispensaries to serve an adult-use market. The measure would levy a 20% sales tax, which the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) estimates would generate $129 million in new tax revenue over the first five years. This revenue would fund veterans’ services, substance abuse treatment, and long-term healthcare, as well as cities and towns that allow adult-use sales.

New Approach must gather 25,468 total signatures for the statutory initiative and 50,936 for the constitutional initiative by June 19 to secure spots on this year’s ballot, but the coronavirus pandemic prevented the campaign from launching its signature gathering efforts as planned.

“The campaign was preparing to launch its signature drive in March, and then coronavirus hit,” Matthew Schweich, deputy director for MPP, which is supporting the campaign, told Cannabis Business Times. “Like every other ballot initiative campaign across the country, we stopped our signature gathering plans because it wasn’t possible to do a signature drive and not exacerbate the public health problems.”

The campaign sought relief through the courts, asking a judge to allow New Approach to collect signatures electronically via DocuSign, as well as to extend the deadline for submitting the signatures for state review.

The District Court ultimately ruled against the campaign on April 30.

“We are obviously disappointed in the outcome of the case,” Petersen told Cannabis Business Times in an emailed statement shortly after the judge’s ruling. “We are considering an appeal and are assessing all of our options on how to move forward.”

The campaign then announced May 7 that it would launch its signature drive while adhering to strict internal public health protocols to limit contact between circulators and petition signers.

“Our team has taken a very conservative and cautious approach, and this is going to be the most public health-focused signature drive ever conducted in Montana,” Petersen said in a public statement. “Our circulators will be trained to follow specific protocols.”

These protocols mandate that circulators must wear masks at all times when on duty, and disposable single-use wrapped pens and gloves will be provided to signers and discarded after each use. Circulators will also have access to disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer while collecting signatures, and will maintain a six-foot distance from signers.

The campaign is also providing a way for Montana residents to sign paper copies of the petition at home and then mail them back to the New Approach Montana team.

Joan Miles, who served as the director of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services under former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, reviewed the New Approach’s protocols and has endorsed its plan, according to the campaign’s announcement.

“The support is there by voters, according to our public opinion research, … and now it’s just a question of, can these initiatives qualify for the 2020 ballot?” Schweich said. “We’ll have the answer to that question in the coming weeks and months."