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The county’s pot party

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Missoula’s top law enforcement officials may have fought against a county initiative recommending that adult marijuana offenses become law enforcement’s lowest priority, but after 55 percent of November’s voters favored the idea, officials are grudgingly working to fulfill it.

On Dec. 21, County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg, Sheriff Mike McMeekin and Chief Civil Deputy County Attorney Mike Sehestedt met with County Commissioners Bill Carey and Barbara Evans to discuss the new legislation and what comes next. Talks centered largely on anticipated negative impacts.

“I do not take lightly the fact that voters approved it, but I still think it’s the worst piece of legislation I know of,” said Evans, who argued that the commissioners should repeal the initiative, which Van Valkenburg said is within their power.

Carey, however, said he wouldn’t support any effort to contradict voters by overturning the initiative. Commissioner Jean Curtiss was on vacation, making it unclear whether Evans could muster enough support to revoke the recommendation despite Carey’s opposition.

Amending the initiative was one possibility forwarded by Van Valkenburg, who said he’d like to see exceptions for selling marijuana and possessing quantities above 60 grams. Currently, the initiative calls for deprioritizing all adult marijuana crimes and creating a citizen oversight committee to monitor the initiative’s implementation. Commissioners said they will begin soliciting members for the committee, which is supposed to launch in February. McMeekin, meanwhile, said his department is developing interim and permanent policies to govern implementation.

Most interesting was a disagreement voiced between Van Valkenburg and McMeekin. In accordance with the initiative, Van Valkenburg said he plans to issue a staff directive to deprioritize marijuana offenses, which, given the county’s perpetual backlog of prosecutions, effectively means they won’t be prosecuted.

“If the sheriff brings a [marijuana] case, it’s going to the bottom of the pile,” Van Valkenburg said.

But McMeekin said he won’t second-guess his deputies’ training and judgment by dictating their priorities.

“I could, but I’m just not going to,” McMeekin said. “I understand I do that at my peril with the electorate.”

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