Campaign launched for ballot initiative to legalize marijuana in Montana


By Aja Goare & Sanjay Talwani - MTN News

A Montana man plans to kick his recreational marijuana campaign into full gear by riding his bike around the state to collect signatures for his ballot initiative.

Anthony Varriano of Glendive, 29 years old, submitted his initiative "Ballot Issue 7" to the Montana Secretary of State on Monday.

The measure would permit people age 21 or older to consume or process limited amounts of marijuana.

Several steps remain before Varriano can launch into one of the most difficult and expensive parts of any ballot measure — gathering tens of thousands of signatures across the state.

To that end, Varriano — his effort organized as Cycling for a Sensible Drug Policy — plans a 1,600-mile, 43-county trip to raise support for the issue and gather signatures.

Still, he called fundraising for that trip “slow going so far.”

He called current recreational marijuana prohibition “ridiculous and draconian” and that the time was right for the measure.

“If we don’t do it in 2016, it’s going to take another four years to pass,” he said.

Varriano has visited legal marijuana stores in both Washington and Colorado; he noted, “We can wait around for the Montana state legislature to get nothing done, again, or we can take into our own hands."

Ballot Issue 7 states that the marijuana profits would be used to supplement teachers’ salaries and even entice out-of-state teachers to take employment in Montana. Varriano also said that taxes from legal marijuana could help Montana solve its infrastructure problems, particularly in eastern Montana.

“Our schools are suffering,” said Varriano. “I know Glendive’s superintendent went out to Minnesota recently to recruit teachers and he came back saying none of them were interested in coming here.”

Varriano said that in states like Washington and Colorado, where recreational marijuana is legal, the economy thrives and he believes Montana is missing out on the same opportunity.

Steve Zabawa, a Billings car dealer, has already submitted his initiative for the 2016 ballot that would ban the use of any marijuana in the state.

Currently, medical marijuana is legal for users who hold a state-issued green card.

“He’s really out of touch,” Varriano said of Zabawa. “A lot of young people are going to vote and this is something they care about. (Zabawa) doesn’t have a chance.”

Zabawa said earlier he wants Montana to follow federal law and criminalize all uses of marijuana, which is currently classified as a Schedule 1 drug.

Schedule 1 drugs are considered by the U.S. government as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.

Varriano and Zabawa must each garner 50,000 signatures to get their respective initiatives on the ballot.

Varriano plans to ride his bike around the state for 50 days and stop in each town to campaign and collect signatures.

“It’s like 1,600 miles,” said Varriano. “I think this shows people I’m serious about this and it also gives me a chance to see more people. I’ll need about a thousand signatures each day of the trip.”

Varriano has created a GoFundMe page for his campaign, and says: "I am a Montana medical marijuana patient. I suffer from degenerative disc disease. I've lost almost half the fluid in three discs between my lumbar vertebrae. I've already had one major back surgery, and I'm only 29 years old. I suffer from chronic back pain that will be with me the rest of my life.