Today is the half-way point in the fight by proponents of medical marijuana to stop reforms passed during the Montana Legislature this spring that would strictly limit the usage of the treatment.
The reforms were going to take effect on July 1, until Helena District Judge James Reynolds blocked portions of the reforms. Now activists are gathering petitions across the state, ahead of a Sept. 30 deadline, to place a new medical marijuana law on the ballot next year that would replace the existing law. They need many more to actually block the new reform law from taking effect until the election decides medical marijuana’s fate.
Rose Habib is the head chemist of Cannabanalysis Laboratories in Missoula and is a leader among petition gathering efforts across the state, including in Havre and Hill County.
According to Habib, they need to gather the signatures of 24,337 voters to have the initiative placed on the ballot. An exact number on the amount needed to block the current law is more difficult to come up with, as it would require 15 percent of 51 of the state’s 100 districts, which vary widely in size and population.
Habib said this morning that the drive is going really well, having gathered close to 20,000 signatures so far this summer while appearing at state and county fairs and in cities across the state. Though those 20,000 have yet to be vetted for authenticity.
Of those, Habib said that more than 1,000 signatures have reportedly been gathered in Hill County.
“Havre is definitely contributing more than their share to the effort across the state, ” Habib said. “They’re doing a fantastic job up there. ”
Local organizers have said that those 1,000 have been difficult to get, claiming to be told they couldn’t gather signatures at the Great Northern Fair and at the weekly Saturday Market.
Fair manager and Havre Mayor Tim Solomon said he remembered them expressing interest in reserving a booth but not hearing back from them.
“They called the first day of the fair, and they asked about doing petitions at the fair, which we don’t allow outside a booth, and we told them they could talk to people on the street as they come in, which I understand they did, ” Solomon said. “We have had a policy forever, from political years, that’s what the booth is for. Why rent a booth if you’re going to walk around outside it? ”
At Havre’s Saturday Market, it is the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce, who is leasing the property from Bear Paw Credit Union, that has the policy limiting petition gathering.
“The policy for Town Square does not allow for the sale of raffle tickets or solicitation, ” said Debbie Vandeberg, the Chamber's executive director. “That is not a city park. We manage it, and those are the rules that have been set up. ”
Habib sees it differently. She feels that petition-gatherers are unfairly, and possibly illegally, being excluded.
“We’re finding that pretty consistently across the state people are trying to block these public forums, ” Habib said. “It’s perfectly legal for people to practice their First Amendment rights. Yet, due to someone’s sense of propriety, they feel that people can’t practice their First Amendment rights there, and that’s not right.
“We’re not letting that stop us. ”
On Saturday, the gatherers were out on the public right-of-way, on the sidewalk, just outside of the Saturday Market area.
James Fenlon, a local Vietnam War veteran, was out with a clipboard on Saturday. He said he had fought for his country in the 1970s and was now fighting for the rights of all beneficiaries of medical marijuana, including himself and his wife, who both suffer from chronic pain.
“I don’t like to see her cry, ” Fenlon said. “That’s what I’m fighting for. ”
He said the response had been tepid for the most part, though that was the result of widespread misunderstandings.
“People are afraid of it, ” Fenlon said. “They put a name on it and lied about it. "
The misunderstanding, according to Habib, extends to the policymakers and state officials in Helena who are still fighting for the current reform, or even more restrictive reforms, including those like Montana Assistant Attorney General Jim Molloy who is appealing Judge Reynolds' overturning of the ban on selling of medical cannabis for a profit.
“They say it’s a dangerous precedent to allow them to sell cannabis in this state, ” Habib said. “If it’s legal to have something in the state then it should be legal to sell it. That’s our point.
“Nonetheless we’ll have to raise the funds to pay for it, while the taxpayers have to continue to pay for this ridiculous witch hunt. Frankly, that just rejuvenates us in our battle to collect signatures."