BOTH SIDES: IR 124, putting the 2011 Legislature’s marijuana reform law up to a public vote

Continuing our coverage of the ballot measures before voters this November, we finish with a look at Initiative Referendum 124.

It puts the 2011 Legislature’s medical marijuana reform up to a vote of the people.


It does not mean the state medical marijuana industry would go back to the way it was if the measure is voted down.

I’ll write this a couple times throughout this story to try to clear up any confusion; a vote for IR 124 keeps the medical marijuana reform bill passed by the 2011 legislature in place, a vote against IR 124 repeals that reform.


It was one of the most intensely debated issues of the last legislative session.

“What we’ve seen over the last year is not what those of us who wrote the law and promoted it ever imagined or envisioned,” said former lobbyist Tom Daubert speaking before a legislative committee during the session. He was the face behind the 2004 legalization effort of medical marijuana.

That law passed with more than a 60 percent majority. It was vaguely written, though and by the time the 2011 Legislature convened, 20 thousand Montanans held the so-called green cards allowing marijuana use. Clinics were being held, registering hundreds of patients at a time. Marijuana storefronts were operating in towns and cities across the state, employing an estimated 14-hundred people.

“I was for the full repeal,” said Republican Speaker of the Montana House of Representatives Mike Milburn.“That’s what I was hearing out there, that Montanans got duped on what the purpose of the first initiative was for medical marijuana.”

Republican Speaker Milburn’s full repeal of the medical marijuana law passed Republican majorities in both the House and Senate. It was then vetoed by Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer.

There was still wide consensus across the political spectrum that some changes to Medical Marijuana regulations needed to be made. A reform bill introduced by Billings Republican State Senator Jeff Essman passed both the legislature and the Governor’s office.

Senate Bill 423.

“This new law has made it virtually impossible for me to safely and legally access my own medication,” said Helena resident Sarah Combs, who is still a registered marijuana patient through SB 423.

“They took away the votes of the Montana voters in 2004,” she said.

The marijuana community was quick to gather enough signatures to put SB 423 on the November ballot as IR 124.

Remember, a vote for it keeps the reform, a vote against it repeals it.

This new law puts an end to the marijuana industry. It significantly restricts who qualifies for marijuana and how they can access it. As a result, cardholders fell from a high of 30 thousand in May of 2011 to about 8 thousand.

Republican House Speaker Mike Milburn says that number is still very high.

“Those people, they’re not medical marijuana users, they’re recreational marijuana users and the state has to get that under control,” Milburn said.

Sarah Combs flatly disagrees. She says she absolutely is a medical marijuana user, and she calls the reform absurd.

“A patient can’t legally get seeds, they can’t legally get clones. How are they supposed to start legally growing for themselves,” she said.

“Well, we have to remember that it’s really not legal to grow,” House Speaker Milburn said. “We have said from a state standpoint that you can do it but we can’t circumvent the federal government.”

In the Spring of 2011, as lawmakers were debating the various reform bills, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration raided Marijuana facilities around the state, destroying inventory and arresting growers. All of it was an apparent reversal from a 2009 Obama Administration memo labeling medical marijuana a low priority for federal agents.

Those raids actually start to make IR 124 a bit more complicated.

Bob Brigham is a spokesperson for patients for reform—a state marijuana advocacy group. He says I’m not quite right to say that a vote for IR 124 keeps the Legislature’s reform in place, a vote against it reverts the state back to the old medical marijuana law.

He says IR 124 is unique in that usually with ballot measures, the status quo is one of the options.

“Neither of the choices are to continue as things are today,” he said.

Let’s start with a yes vote. It does affirm SB 423, the legislature’s reform. But that law has actually yet to be fully implemented.

“There’s still currently an injunction against that law taking effect,” he said.

That injunction is a result of a lawsuit by the Montana Cannabis Industry Association. It blocks the part of SB 423 saying providers cannot make money from their product.

So patients are still buying from some caregivers right now. The State Supreme Court has already ruled to lift that injunction, but it still hasn’t quite happened yet because of formalities in the appeals process. When the injunction is lifted, the state would then see SB 423 as it was originally intended for the first time.

Then, a no vote.

“Well, this is confusing too,” Brigham said, “because a no vote does not go back to the way things were a couple of years ago.”

Brigham points out that the medical marijuana shops across the state didn’t necessarily shut their doors because of SB 423. Remember, that injunction still allows them to operate, for the time being. The shops have closed down because of the federal raids and storefront owners’ fear the same thing would happen to them.

Also, this summer the Montana Supreme Court came out with several rulings restricting marijuana use outside of the Legislature’s reform bill.

“Nobody can claim that if people vote no on IR 124, that we’re gonna go back to the Wild West,” Brigham said, adding those days are gone forever.

Let’s sum up and try to put this the best way.

A vote for IR 124 keeps the legislature’s reform bill in place as it will be after the injunction is lifted and businesses really do need to shut down.

A vote against IR 124  puts Montana on another new path, the old marijuana law post federal raids and post new restrictions put in place by the State Supreme Court.

This story uses excerpts from my Montana PBS special on the ballot measures, “From the People: Montana’s 2012 Ballot Measures”

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