There are currently 13,170 medical marijuana patients on Montana's registry. Pictured: A marijuana plant is displayed during the 2016 Cannabis Business Summit & Expo in Oakland, California. (Justin Sullivan, Getty Images)

Montana anti-marijuana group doubles down in push to get initiative on ballot

HELENA, Mont. — Sponsors of an anti-marijuana initiative that failed to qualify for November’s ballot are claiming they submitted enough signatures to put the measure before the voters, but that thousands of names were lost or wrongly rejected by county officials.

The sponsors, a group called Safe Montana and led by Billings car dealer Steve Zabawa, delivered to Secretary of State Linda McCulloch’s office more than 3,200 voter signatures they say are valid but were rejected by county officials across the state.

The group separately filed a lawsuit asking a state judge to count those rejected signatures plus an additional 2,588 signatures that it says Flathead County election officials lost.

The measure seeks to repeal Montana’s medical marijuana law and declare that any drug illegal under federal law is also illegal under state law. The result would be a ban on marijuana use and possession in the state that includes the 13,170 medical marijuana patients on Montana’s registry.

The proposed initiative fell 4,137 signatures and one county short of qualifying for the ballot after county officials rejected 8,000 signatures as invalid. The approximately 6,000 lost and rejected signatures that the sponsors say are valid would put the measure over the top, Zabawa said.

“Linda should do the right thing,” he said, referring to his appeal to McCulloch to accept the rejected signatures. “Then the judge will have to rule on the lost signatures.”

McCulloch said in a letter to Zabawa that the 3,200 signatures he turned in Wednesday would not be counted because the July 15 deadline had passed.

She told reporters later she could not comment because of the pending lawsuit in Flathead County, but said the 56 county clerks and reporters who certify initiative signatures “do an amazing job, and nobody has ever questioned them.”

That leaves the Flathead County lawsuit as Zabawa’s last hope to get his measure on the ballot. A hearing on his request to count the signatures and order McCulloch to certify the initiative is scheduled for Friday.

Time is short. McCulloch and her staff plan to begin certifying the November election ballots next week to ensure they are printed and reach military voters overseas 45 days before the election, she said.

To qualify for the ballot, initiative sponsors must gather signatures from 5 percent of state voters, including at least 5 percent of voters in 34 of Montana’s 100 House districts. The total number of signatures required is 24,175, and 20,038 signatures were certified for the anti-marijuana proposal.

In pressing his argument, Zabawa cited a state law that says the secretary of state may “consider and tabulate any signature not certified by the county official that is certified by a notary public of the county in which the signer resides.”

Zabawa said the measure’s sponsors have spent three weeks notarizing more than 3,500 rejected signatures from across the state.

The rejected signatures included voters who signed the petition outside of the county where they are registered and those in which some information about voters was omitted but the signatures were still valid, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit includes a sworn statement by signature gatherer Jordan Loyda that 2,588 signatures he submitted to Flathead County went missing and did not appear in state totals. The lawsuit seeks a judge’s order for the county offices to be searched. If the signatures aren’t found, it asks for them to be counted toward the initiative’s total, anyway.

The lawsuit names Flathead County Clerk and Recorder Debbie Pierson and Pierson’s recording manager, Monica Eisenzimer, as defendants along with McCulloch.

Pierson did not return a call for comment.