Group files suit over anti-pot visit

July 14, 2005

Jennifer McKee, Billings Gazette

The group behind Montana's medical marijuana law wants the state to investigate why a commander of the nation's war on drugs didn't disclose the cost of his tax-funded Montana trip last year when he spoke against the ballot measure.

The Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project filed a complaint in Helena District Court Thursday.

The suit asked District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock to force the state's commissioner of political practices to investigate why Scott Burns, deputy director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, didn't make public the cost of his trip to Montana last October.

Burns visited several cities in the state while speaking against Initiative 148, which passed by a 62 percent to 38 percent margin and was intended to legalize the use of medical marijuana in the state.

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A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidated all state medical marijuana laws. However, Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath has said state and local law enforcement will continue to uphold Montana's citizen-passed law. That means Montanans who have permission from their doctors to use marijuana will not prosecuted by local authorities, but could face federal prosecution.

The Marijuana Policy Project supported I-148 and filed required disclosures with the commissioner's office detailing how much money the group spent promoting I-148.

Steve Fox, director of the government relations for the group, said Burns was certainly campaigning against the measure in October when he traveled to Montana, but Burns never disclosed how much in tax dollars he spent trying to defeat the measure.

'The campaign finance laws are there so the people of the state understand how much money is being spent,' Fox said.

Fox said it's part of Burns' job description to oppose any effort to legalize marijuana, so it's not disputed that Burns was in the state only weeks before the election to campaign against I-148.

The group filed a complaint in February with Gordon Higgins, commissioner of political practices, alleging the Office of National Drug Control and Policy was operating as a de facto political action committee in the campaign and should be required to file records showing how much money it spent sending Burns to Montana.

Higgins responded in May with a letter saying Burns was immune from Montana campaign finance laws because he was a federal official doing his job. The letter agreed with a legal opinion from the White House drug office that Higgins' requested.

Higgins said he could not publicly comment on the complaint.

Fox countered that saying federal officials are immune from state laws is like saying the mailman doesn't have to follow Montana traffic laws when he delivers the mail.

'We're not trying to say the drug czar can't campaign,' Fox said. 'It's merely a fact that if a federal official chooses to come to the state, they should respect the state's regulations.'

Fox maintains Higgins didn't adequately investigate whether Burns needed to file campaign finance disclosures because he dropped the matter once he concluded Burns was exempt from state campaign laws.

The complaint asks the judge to force Higgins to fully investigate whether Burns was actually campaigning. If so, Fox said, the commissioner would have little choice but to force Burns to file disclosure documents.

The suit also asks the White House drug office to pay the group's attorney's fees.

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