Montana's legislators must think we voters are as dense as the frozen hard-pack coating the Missoula Valley.
The Legislature finds itself debating a slew of bills intended to override initiatives voters themselves have put on the books. A handful of legislators, including Jim Shockley, R-Victor, seek to repeal Montana's Medical Marijuana Act, which 64 percent of voters approved in 2004. Outfitter Bill Harris, R-Mosby, wants to reinstate outfitter-sponsored nonresident hunting licenses after 54 percent of voters abolished the licenses by supporting Initiative 161 last November. There's even a proposal to amend the Montana Constitution to increase the number of signatures required for citizens to qualify an initiative for the ballot.
The trend hit close to home last week when it was reported that Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg had worked with Rep. Tom Berry, R-Roundup, to draft a bill to make moot Initiative 2, which 55 percent of Missoula County voters endorsed in 2006. The measure established adult misdemeanor marijuana offenses as the county's lowest law enforcement priority.
House Bill 391 wouldn't just nix I-2, but prohibit local initiatives from establishing priority of enforcement of state law.
"This thing needs to be nipped in the bud," Van Valkenburg tells the Indy. "It's bad policy. People at the local level should not be deciding how state laws are enforced. It would be outrageous if the people of some community said, 'Well, we want to have partner assault treated as the lowest priority in our community.' The liberal forces of the world would go crazy over something like that. But it's nearly no different when it comes to marijuana."
Fair enough. But the thing is, I-2 doesn't have any teeth anyway. It's merely a suggestion. Van Valkenburg himself says the law has had a negligible effect on how local law enforcement does its job, and the number of pot busts in the county has remained steady since 2006. So we're left wondering why Van Valkenburg feels compelled to invalidate it.
"Marijuana is prohibited by virtue of state law, and it ought to be treated the same whether it's Sydney or Missoula or Libby or Alzada," he says. "If somebody's got a gripe with marijuana being illegal they ought to take it to the Legislature."
Well, five years ago Missoulians had a gripe with local marijuana laws and put the issue on the ballot. That ought to be enough.
Van Valkenburg's proposal isn't as ill-intentioned as some think. He's apparently a stickler for the rules. But overriding voter sentiment is a slippery slope. Let's hope our elected legislators don't make a habit of it. After all, our votes do count when it comes to their jobs.