Pubdate: Thu, 18 Oct 2012
Source: Billings Gazette, The (MT)
Copyright: 2012 The Billings Gazette
Author: Tom Lutey


A press conference to charge Attorney General Steve Bullock of 
botching medical marijuana ballot language quickly soured on pot 
opponents who found themselves accused of blowing smoke.

The anti-medical marijuana group Safe Communities, Safe Kids was 
staging a press conference Wednesday to announce a political practice 
complaint against Steve Bullock, when gate-crashing medical marijuana 
proponents and even a member of Bullock's staff interrupted to deride 
the charges as election foolery.

"You're trying to pull a political stunt using a mechanism that is 
not set up for this purpose," said Jim Molloy, an assistant attorney 
general to Bullock.

Bullock, a Democrat, is running for governor against Republican Rick 
Hill. And ballot language his office vetted for legality and fairness 
has been settled for nearly two months. So, with Election Day just 
three weeks out, the complaint by Safe Communities, Safe Kids was 
nothing more than political theater to give Hill a boost, Molloy said.

Molloy pointed out that Steve Zabawa, a Billings businessman, who 
supports Safe Communities, Safe Kids, and attended the press 
conference, had just four weeks ago held a fundraiser, featuring 
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, for Hill at Zabawa's Billings Mercedes 
Benz dealership.

The 11 a.m. press conference was held at Jake's West End restaurant.

State law provides a 10-day window for challenging ballot language 
before the ballots go to press. No one bothered to challenge the 
ballot language when something could have been done about it, said 
Molloy, a ballot language expert who took the day off work to attend 
the press conference and cry foul.

"We didn't realize it was going to be such a big problem until the 
ballots came out," said Cherie Brady, of Safe Communities, Safe Kids. 
Once absentee ballots ware issued Oct. 9, Brady said her group began 
receiving calls from voters unsure about how to fill their ballots out.

This election, voters are asked either to affirm a medical marijuana 
reform law passed by 2011 Montana Legislature or revert to a medical 
marijuana passed by voters in 2004.

The decision exists, because the 2011 Legislature concluded that a 
sudden boom in registered medical marijuana users and subsequent 
retail industry was not what voters intended in 2004 when more than 
60 percent of ballots supported allowing marijuana use by people with 
debilitating medical conditions.

The 2011 law, known as Senate Bill 423, repealed the 2004 law and put 
tighter limits on who qualifies for medical marijuana, and also set 
terms for growing the medicine. The new law prohibited growing 
medical marijuana for profit and allowed growers to only raise 
marijuana for three patients.

The marijuana ballot issue appears as "Initiative Referendum No. 
124." A vote "for" the initiative preserves the 2011 Legislature's 
law. A vote "against" returns Montana to the voter-approved 2004 law. 
Complete repeal is not an option.

As Molloy argued that Safe Communities, Safe Kids' complaint was 
specious, he also said that lawmakers, who drafted the 2011 law, were 
consulted about the ballot language and agreed. Those lawmakers 
included Rep. Cary Smith, R-Billings, and Republican Sen. Jeff, 
Essmann, also of Billings. Smith's wife is a member of Safe 
Communities, Safe Kids. Essmann attended the press conference.

Essmann said he agreed with the ballot language when it was presented 
to him and thought it made sense. However, now Essmann said he 
realizes voters don't have his level of understanding about Senate 
Bill 423 and might get confused.

Essmann also used the press conference to accuse the Montana Cannabis 
Industry Association for misrepresenting his position on the law he 
authored. Essmann said the distortions were made in radio ads 
encouraging people to vote against IR-124.

The senator was quickly contradicted by Elizabeth Pincolini of the 
Montana Cannabis Industry Association who said her group had done no 
radio advertizing.

Another group, Patients for Reform, took credit for the ads, but said 
Essmann was wrong about being misrepresented.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom