Montana activists behind a proposed marijuana legalization ballot measure are weighing an appeal after a district court dismissed their lawsuit seeking the right to collect signatures electronically amid the coronavirus pandemic.
New Approach Montana, which suspended in-person signature gathering to mitigate the spread of the virus, sued the state and alleged that laws barring digital signature collection are unconstitutional. Top officials who’ve expressed opposition to cannabis reform were quick to condemn the suit.
And on Thursday, a state district court judge rejected the group’s request for declaratory and preliminary injunctive relief, concluding that they “failed to show that the statutes…infringe on Plaintiffs’ rights guaranteed by the Constitution under the present circumstances of this case.”
“The Court finds that Plaintiffs claims do not meet the threshold for injunctive relief at this time,” Judge John Larson said in the order, which also denied New Approach Montana’s request to extend the deadline to submit signatures from June 19 to August 3.
The group is behind two cannabis proposals: One statutory initiative that would allow adults to possess and purchase cannabis from licensed retailers and another constitutional amendment initiative that would make a technical change to state law specifying that only those 21 and older would be covered by the measure.
Despite the legal setback, advocates are keeping their options open.
“A bunch of Montana cowboys have a little over a month to qualify an initiative to legalize adult use marijuana for the November 2020 ballot,” Pepper Petersen, political director of New Approach, told Marijuana Moment. “The whole world fell apart in just a month, now I reckon it’s time for us to try to fix a small piece of our broken world in the same amount of time. If anyone can do it, this bunch of cannabis cowboys can.”
Matthew Schweich, deputy director of the Marijuana Policy Project, which is helping to organize this and other state-based cannabis reform efforts around the country, also told Marijuana Moment that “New Approach Montana is considering an appeal” of the court’s order.
Attorney General Tim Fox, who had blamed activists themselves for starting petitioning relatively late prior to filing their suit, celebrated the court’s decision in a press release on Thursday.
The court agreed w/ my arguments & declined to suspend signature gathering laws for 2 marijuana ballot measures. This is a victory for the rule of law & Montana’s constitution. The court’s job is to interpret laws, not write them or suspend them. https://t.co/SD71sVXAoj #mtnews
— Tim Fox (@AGTimFox) April 30, 2020
“The District Court’s order is a victory for the rule of law and Montana’s constitution,” he said. “I am pleased with the ruling because the court’s job is to interpret laws, not to write them or suspend them.”
New Approach Montana is one of several drug policy reform campaigns that are pleading for relief from states in order to increase their chances of qualifying for ballots at a time of stay-at-home orders and social distancing requirements.
In Arizona, the organizers of a legalization effort are petitioning the state Supreme Court to instruct the secretary of state to allow people to sign cannabis petitions digitally using an existing electronic system that is currently reserved for individual candidates seeking public office.
Likewise in Washington, D.C., advocates for a measure to decriminalize psychedelics asked the mayor and local lawmakers to accept online signatures for their ballot petition.
Several other drug policy reform campaigns have been derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri officially gave up its effort for 2020 last month due to signature collection being virtually impossible in the face of social distancing measures.
An effort to legalize medical cannabis in Nebraska is also facing signature gathering challenges.
In Oregon, advocates for a measure to decriminalize drug possession and a separate initiative to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes have suspended in-person campaign events amid the pandemic.
Idaho medical cannabis activists announced that they are suspending their ballot campaign, though they are still “focusing on distributing petitions through online download at IdahoCann.co and encouraging every volunteer who has downloaded a petition to get them turned in to their county clerk’s office by mail, regardless of how many signatures they have collected.”
North Dakota advocates said that they are suspending their campaign to put marijuana legalization on the November ballot due to the coronavirus outbreak.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) conceded last month that the 2020 legalization push is “effectively over” in the legislature. Coronavirus shifted priorities, and comprehensive cannabis reform seems to have proved too complicated an issue in the short-term.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.