Support Local Journalism


In next year’s election, Montana voters could be deciding whether to legalize marijuana, ban marijuana completely or allow concealed handguns at schools.

Those are just a few of the many proposals for voter initiatives that are in the works for the 2016 election.

County election officials began accepting signed petitions for constitutional and statutory ballot measures Oct. 19. Signatures can be submitted until June 17 to make the ballot.

Measures that qualify will receive appointed committees in July to draft pro and con statements. The arguments, and the rebuttals, will be published in the official voter information pamphlet in October.

Legalize recreational marijuana

Anthony Varriano, a sports reporter in Glendive, wants us all to live the high life. As of Oct. 5, Varriano was approved to begin collecting signatures for a constitutional initiative that would give adult Montanans “the right to purchase, consume, and possess marijuana, subject to age limitations set by the Legislature or through the ballot initiative.”

Because it would amend the state constitution, Varriano’s proposal requires 48,349 voter signatures before it can appear on the ballot. Officially, the recreational pot measure is titled CI-115, but Varriano submitted it as “Amendment 420.”

“Pretty enthusiastic signature gatherers, coordinators in a dozen counties, been collecting signatures for two weeks,” he said.

Varriano said marijuana is safer for human consumption than alcohol, tobacco and peanuts.

“Peanuts kill 200 people per year,” he said.

(The number of peanut allergy-related deaths in the U.S. each year is disputed, several reports show.)

He has a related initiative pending legal review by the attorney general’s office. It would create a 20 percent sales tax on the sale of recreational marijuana. On April 20, Varriano will begin riding his bicycle around the state to rally support for the measures.

“The only way we win this is if we dominate voter registration. It’s a key facet of signature gathering,” he said, adding that he was surprised at how many older Montanans have expressed their support.

Ban all marijuana use, including medicinal

Steve Zabawa, a Billings car salesman, wants to ban all marijuana use in Montana, including now-legal medicinal use. He wants to outlaw anything listed as a “Schedule I” drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act. Marijuana is such a drug, along with heroin, ecstasy and LSD.

In 2014, Zabawa failed to place a similar measure on the ballot. To qualify for 2016, Zabawa and others will need to collect 24,175 voter signatures.

There were 12,672 patients registered in Montana’s medical marijuana program in September. Medical marijuana was first approved in 2004 with the support of 61 percent of Montana voters.

Concealed handguns at school

Eighteen-year-old Chet Billi of Whitefish has been approved to collect signatures on a ballot measure that would allow any local school district employee in Montana to carry a concealed pistol to work if they obtain a concealed carry permit.

Billi said Thursday he’s got a few of the 24,175 signatures needed from Whitefish voters but wants to begin following gun shows around the state.

“I think that’s a good place to start, and then I want to start talking to the Republican central committees,” he said.

And some people are contacting him to express their support.

“There’s a school resource officer in Missoula who said he would help out,” Billi said. “And the principal at the Christian academy in Livingston called me and said he had most of the staff on board.”

Why does he want teachers to have pistols? School shootings.

“I kept getting disgusted with the calls for restrictions on the ability of the victims to carry guns,” he said. “Gun free zones are just not working so I’m taking this the other direction. Responsible people can respond much faster than the police.”

Ban trapping on public lands

Hoping that the fourth time’s the charm, opponents of animal trapping have been approved to collect signatures for a ballot measure to ban the practice on all public lands, state and federally managed, which totals nearly a third of the state.

The proposal would still allow the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks to use traps on public lands “to protect public health and safety, protect livestock and property, or conduct specified scientific and wildlife management activities” and would not affect trapping on private land.

According to a member of the ballot committee, Montanans for Trap-free Public Lands said it already began collecting signatures with “volunteers in Great Falls, the Flathead area, Missoula, the Bitterrroot, Bozeman, Livingston, Helena and Butte.”

Other ballot measures in the works

A number of proposals are still in the review process and have not yet been approved for signature gathering.

A retired clergyman from Bozeman has submitted a ballot measure to reduce carbon dioxide production, a greenhouse gas linked to climate change, from Montana power plants.

“And it would set goals for renewable resource generation,” said John Soderberg. “The goal would be 80 percent by 2050.”

Soderberg returned from the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City, where he had discussed climate change.

“It’s a major issue for all faiths,” he said. “That the Earth is a source of life rather than a source for exploitation, I felt like that was a powerful statement.”

Montana voters also will likely get to vote on a measure to create a “victim’s bill of rights.”

Proponents of “Marsy’s Law,” named after a college student in California who was murdered in 1983, are awaiting legal review of their ballot measure to amend the Montana Constitution.

Montana’s criminal justice system would force and prioritize restitution payments to victims, require victims to be notified of and given right to participate in sentencing and parole hearings, among other changes.

“Montana is one of 18 states that doesn’t have constitutional rights for crime victims,” said Chuck Denowh, state director for Marsy’s Law for All. “Montana does have some protections, but they’re statutory. This will elevate them to the constitution.”

Marsy’s brother, Henry Nicholas, supported the passage of similar ballot measures in California and Illinois. He personally donated more than $4 million to each of the ballot measure committees in those states, according to the National Institute of Money in State Politics.

According to campaign finance records, the 2016 ballot committee in Montana has received more than $671,000 from Nicholas and spent $178,000 on signature gathering services from Advanced Micro Targeting, a Nevada corporation.

Support Local Journalism

To see what else is happening in Gallatin County subscribe to the online paper.

Troy Carter can be reached at 582-2630 or He’s on Twitter at @cartertroy.

Troy Carter covers politics and county government for the Chronicle.

Support quality local journalism. Become a subscriber.

Subscribers get full, survey-free access to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle's award-winning coverage both on our website and in our e-edition, a digital replica of the print edition.