Pubdate: Thu, 20 Apr 2006
Source: Missoula Independent (MT)
Copyright: 2006 Missoula Independent
Author: Jessie Mcquillan
Bookmark: (Cannabis)
Bookmark: (Walters, John)


A Missoula Group Proposes New Police Priorities

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 

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
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman