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Pot on the back burner?

A Missoula group proposes new police priorities

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Marijuana offenses by adults could become Missoula County law enforcement’s lowest priority if a recently filed ballot proposal proves successful.

Should voters approve, the initiative crafted by Citizens for Responsible Crime Policy (CRCP) would direct Missoula County officials—including the Sheriff’s Department and County Attorney’s Office—to put marijuana-related investigations, citations, arrests, seizures and prosecutions at the bottom of their to-do list, in favor of investing more time and resources into more serious crimes. Nothing about marijuana’s criminal status would be changed, and the initiative wouldn’t preclude marijuana arrests; rather, the measure would simply direct law enforcement to prioritize other crimes like robbery, murder, rape, assault and drunken driving. Marijuana offenses involving minors, driving under the influence or distribution near schools would not be de-prioritized.

“We’re just a group of Missoula County citizens who have a core belief that there’s more important things that our government and law enforcement should put their money and time into,” says CRCP member Angela Goodhope. “We can have a common-sense approach to citizenry and crime.”

Goodhope says the time seems ripe for Missoula’s passage of the initiative, given the strong 62-percent show of support for the statewide medical marijuana law in 2004.

The national—or at least Western—atmosphere also seems conducive to passage in Montana, though Missoula would likely prove one of the least-populated areas in which such de-prioritization has been enacted.

The Missoula County proposal mirrors initiatives that passed in Seattle, Wash., in 2003 and Oakland, Calif., in 2004, and have since been implemented. Portland, Ore., and Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and San Mateo, Calif., are all in the process of gathering signatures to place similar measures on the ballot this year.

Missoula’s initiative was filed April 14, and County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg has 20 days in which to review the petition to gauge whether it meets legal and statutory rules. If Van Valkenburg approves it, the group will then have three months to gather the nearly 12,000 signatures required to place the initiative on the ballot. And should voters pass the measure, the Board of County Commissioners would then appoint a nine-member Community Oversight Committee to oversee implementation and review reports of all local actions taken against adult marijuana offenders.

While Van Valkenburg didn’t have an opportunity to review the submitted petition and comment before press time, he did review a draft and CRCP subsequently made changes to address Van Valkenburg’s concerns. Those questions revolved largely around worries that the initiative might conflict with state law or create overreaching new powers over the Sheriff’s Department, according to a letter from the CRCP to Van Valkenburg. But the group holds that the initiative remains well within the law: “Marijuana crimes would remain illegal and fully enforceable in Missoula County if the initiative passes,” the letter reads. “The initiative merely adopts the voter-directed policy that enforcement of adult marijuana crimes should be a lower priority than enforcement of other crimes.”

Sheriff Mike McMeekin has not reviewed the submitted petition and declined to comment on its provisions. He did say, however, that his department doesn’t operate according to any simple, rigid list that prioritizes crimes—due to the highly dynamic nature of law-enforcement work—and that establishing one would be a challenge.

In Seattle, implementation seems to have gone smoothly. Though opponents from U.S. Drug Czar John Walters on down predicted an upsurge in marijuana use and corrupted kids, the only major result was a 67-percent reduction in marijuana prosecutions, according to Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger. A study of Seattle’s kids comparing pre- and post-initiative rates of usage even found a slight decline in marijuana use.

In Missoula County, according to the Montana Board of Crime Control, there were 261 arrests involving marijuana in 2004, or one every 33 hours. While no estimates for Missoula County expenditures on enforcing marijuana laws are available, a 2005 Harvard University study broke down marijuana prohibition costs on a state-by-state basis, and estimated state and local Montana governments spent $9 million in 2000 on police, judicial and corrections efforts combating marijuana.

Liz Rantz, a member of CRCP and a local doctor who has long worked in corrections at the county and state level, says resources now directed at marijuana could be better utilized elsewhere.

“Working in corrections, what I see is that the major drugs we need to send the police force after are methamphetamine and narcotics—there’s enough work there to keep them busy,” Rantz says.

She sees potential for the initiative in Missoula, though she says it’s too early to gauge how it would be received. Concurrent races for both sheriff and justice of the peace while the initiative campaign is also rolling may make for an interesting mix, she says.

Goodhope says paid signature gatherers will launch the campaign immediately once the initiative effort is given the green light. John Masterson, director of the Montana chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), is also involved in CRCP and says NORML will lend its help to the cause. Bruce Mirken, spokesman for the national Marijuana Policy Project, says his group will help fund the initiative effort, something it’s done in other states as well. That a small, relatively out-of-the-way community like Missoula County is seeking to pass such an initiative is a sign of change to come, he says.

“I do think there’s a growing awareness around the country that our current marijuana laws don’t make a lot of sense and they represent a huge tax waste to little effect,” Mirken says. “As we see [these initiatives] beginning to happen in different sorts of communities around the nation, it adds to the momentum and builds the sense that a lot of Americans of different political persuasions are concerned.”

The ballot initiative proposed by Citizens for Responsible Crime Policy can be viewed at www.responsiblecrimepolicy.org.

jmcquillan@missoulanews.com

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