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Montana Supreme Court quickly dismisses lawsuit over pot initiative

by CHAD SOKOL
Daily Inter Lake | October 23, 2020 4:00 AM

The Montana Supreme Court has swiftly rejected a lawsuit from an anti-marijuana group seeking to block the statewide legalization of recreational pot.

An attorney for Wrong for Montana and its treasurer, Steve Zabawa, filed a petition Tuesday seeking to invalidate Initiative 190, a ballot measure that would legalize marijuana in the state. The group argues I-190 would illegally earmark tax revenue from pot sales to be used for specific purposes, which is a responsibility reserved for the Legislature.

The court dismissed the suit on Wednesday, saying Zabawa's group did not demonstrate the case is urgent enough to skip over the usual trial and appeal phases.

New Approach Montana, the committee backing I-190, celebrated the court's decision.

“This was an easy decision for the Montana Supreme Court,” Dave Lewis, a former Republican state lawmaker and budget director who is working as a policy adviser for New Approach Montana, said in a statement. “At best, this lawsuit was a frivolous longshot. At worst, it was an intentional effort to create confusion right before the election.”

New Approach Montana also backs a companion amendment to the state Constitution that would raise the legal age for recreational marijuana use to 21. The group says legal marijuana would generate more than $236 million in taxes over the next six years, citing a study from the University of Montana's Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

"The revenue will be used to fund services to Montana veterans and surviving spouses and dependents; programs to increase access to public lands and provide improvements for parks and trails; state grants for substance abuse treatment and prevention; and community and home health care services for elderly and disabled Montanans," New Approach Montana says on its website. "A portion of the revenue will also be allocated to local governments that allow marijuana sales."

Zabawa and his attorney, Brian Thompson, pointed to Article III, Section 4 of the Montana Constitution, which says, "The people may enact laws by initiative on all matters except appropriations of money and local or special laws."

Their lawsuit hinged on the meaning of the term "appropriation."

In 2014, a district judge in Helena ruled an initiative to raise tobacco taxes could remain on the ballot, saying it would deposit money into specific state accounts but would not effectively authorize spending. That September, the state Supreme Court similarly declined to hear the case because it had not been through the usual appeal process.

In their dismissal of Wrong for Montana's suit, the justices wrote, "We express no opinion on the merits of WFM's constitutional challenge, nor to its right to pursue this challenge in district court."

Zabawa said Thursday his attorney was preparing to file a new petition in district court in Helena.

Reporter Chad Sokol can be reached at 758-4434 or csokol@dailyinterlake.com