Montana REC Push Gathers Signatures, Despite COVID

By Hilary Corrigan
May 13, 2020

Coronavirus has slowed marijuana and other drug-related ballot initiatives across the country this election year.

After months of work to collect signatures, register voters and educate the public, the virus and resulting social-distancing measures have “made this work virtually impossible,” NORML state policies coordinator Carly Wolf said. Still, Wolf is optimistic about some states, such as Montana, where activists are determined to gather signatures amidst a pandemic.

“We’re gonna win and we’re gonna change Montana,” said Pepper Petersen, political director and co-founder of New Approach Montana.

The political campaign aims to get two initiatives on the ballot. The statutory initiative, which requires roughly 25,500 signatures, would legalize REC possession and use for those over age 21, and set up a regulatory framework for cultivation and sales.

The constitutional initiative would set the legal age for buying, consuming or possessing the drug at 21. This would match how Montana sets the legal age for alcohol, since the state constitution considers 18 years olds adults. It requires 50,000 signatures.

The group had planned to start collecting signatures in March, but the virus and social distancing rules delayed the effort until May. Collecting signatures at bars, concerts and a St. Patrick’s Day parade would have been a slam dunk, Petersen said.

But he still expects to get the required signatures by the June 19 deadline. Signature takers set up tables in public, stand back, wear masks—“You have to yell a little at times,” Petersen said—and use one-time-use pens.

“Everybody loves getting a pen,” Petersen said.

Like activists in other states, New Approach Montana had sought to use electronic signatures. And like most other states, it didn’t work. A Montana First Judicial District Court ruling denied the request last month. Still, Petersen expects a boost from a separate recent Montana secretary of state ruling that removes the need for a notarized affidavit for collected signatures.

He also expects Montana residents will support the effort partly because of the potential tax revenue. The funds could help make up for lost revenue that came from coal and that Montana needs for services like road maintenance in remote communities.

“The money’s desperately needed and it’s there,” he said of marijuana.

Correction: This article originally misstated Carly Wolf’s title.