Legal marijuana is on the ballot in Big Sky Country

Legal marijuana is on the ballot in Big Sky Country

Come November 3, Big Sky Country could be among the latest places to free the weed. As is the case in Arizona, New Jersey, and South Dakota, marijuana legalization is on the ballot in Montana in 2020.

In Montana, though, people will be voting on not one but two complementary initiatives. While I-190 would legalize marijuana, CI-118 would amend the state constitution to allow for the age of majority—set at 18—to be raised for purchasing, consuming, or possessing marijuana as it is for alcohol.

I-190 would legalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by adults 21 and over and allow for the home cultivation of up to four plants and four seedlings. It would also designate the state department of revenue to regulate marijuana commerce, from cultivation to retail sales. The initiative sets a retail tax of 20 percent on marijuana and marijuana-infused products for non-medical use.

And that's become a selling point for legalization: It can help fund state spending with the budget stressed by the coronavirus pandemic. A September report from the University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research found that tax revenues from legal marijuana sales would generate between $43 million and $52 million a year in the first four years after legalization.

"Following in the footsteps of eleven other states, Montana voters have the opportunity to legalize recreational marijuana for people over the age of 21 by passing both CI-118 and I-190," said an op-ed by the Public Lands Coalition, which wants to see revenues from marijuana support projects like Habitat Montana, which works to "increase access to landlocked public lands." The op-ed continued: "The Montana effort to legalize marijuana differs from other states, though. Roughly 50 percent of the revenue generated from recreational marijuana sales would support state public lands by funding efforts like Habitat Montana. These funds are critical in order to maintain abundant wildlife populations and ensure our outdoor economy continues to thrive."

"Our research has always shown that a majority of Montanans support legalization, and now voters will have the opportunity to enact that policy, which will create jobs and generate new revenue for our state," said Pepper Petersen, a spokesperson for New Approach Montana, which is organizing the campaign for the initiatives. "It also means that law enforcement will stop wasting time and resources arresting adults for personal marijuana possession, and instead focus on real crime."

There is no recent polling to back up Petersen's claims, but a pair of older polls suggest he could be onto something. A February University of Montana Big Sky poll had recreational marijuana legalization winning 54 percent against 37 percent who were not in favor of this. That was up from a March 2019 Big Sky poll that had support at 51 percent.

That's not an especially comfortable lead for a ballot initiative, since organized opposition later in the campaign can eat away at support. And in September, organized opposition emerged in the form of Wrong for Montana. Led by Billings businessman Stephen Zabawa, a persistent foe of marijuana reforms, the group is also supported by the Montana Family Foundation and the Montana Contractors Association.

Zabawa said he had launched a billboard and digital media campaign against the two marijuana legalization measures. "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."

Wrong for Montana has reported about $78,000 in donations and has already spent $61,000, leaving a paltry $17,000 to campaign with. New Approach Montana, on the other hand, has raised nearly $7 million in total and still has around $1.6 million in cash to play with. It has spent $2.3 million of this money on a late campaign TV ad blitz for October and November.

The campaign's coffers were filled largely by the national New Approach PAC, which supports various drug reform efforts around the country and has kicked in nearly $2 million, and the North Fund, which has donated $4.7 million. A somewhat mysterious entity whose funders remain unknown, the North Fund has also donated big bucks to a campaign for D.C. statehood and an effort to expand Medicaid in Missouri.

All that money and all those TV ads should help New Approach Montana get over the finish line come November 3. But it will be nail-biting time until all the votes are counted.

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