Missoula County Commission Amends Marijuana Initiative

Jim Finnel

Fallen Cannabis Warrior & Ex News Moderator
In front of a large crowd the Missoula County Commission voted 2-1 Thursday to pass amendments to the voter-passed Initiative 2 that would exclude the deprioritization of felony marijuana offenses.

Room 201 in the Courthouse was standing room only by the time the public hearing was called to order and there was a steady line of people in the middle of the room waiting to testify on the amendments throughout the three-hour long hearing. A large majority of the speakers, approximately 30 people, spoke out against the new amendments with only about five people speaking in favor of the changes.

Fifty-six percent of Missoulians voted for the countywide initiative to deprioritize marijuana offenses last November. According to the amended Initiative 2, the misdemeanor possession of marijuana in adult cases will now be made Missoula County's lowest law enforcement priority but the deprioritization will not apply to felony offenses.

Misdemeanor possession is defined as the possession of less then 60 grams, or two ounces, of marijuana and felony possession of marijuana is defined as 60 grams or greater.

County Commissioners Jean Curtiss and Barbara Evans both voted for the amendments. Curtiss said, "It is our job is to see how this [Initiative 2] plays out on the ground," and said the exclusion of felony offences would solve any problems the County has with implementing the new initiative.

Bill Carey voted against the amendments, saying the commission should use the original initiative that Missoula voters passed. "If after a year, we find we need to amend it, then we should come back and amend it," he said.

Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg, who had presented the proposal for the amendments to the county commissioners, said the separation of misdemeanor and felony charges would give direction to county officials as to what a lowest law enforcement priority means. Van Valkenburg also emphasized that the initiative is merely a recommendation for the county law enforcement, not a law.

Van Valkenburg pinned up a poster during his presentation showing the distribution of voters' decisions on Initiative 2 in November. The segmented blocks showed that the initiative passed 58 to 42 percent inside Missoula city limits but failed 44 to 55 percent outside of the city limits.

He argued that even though the core of Missoula agreed with the initiative, the initiative's effect is much different for the people outside the core of Missoula because it applies only to the county law enforcement, not the city, he explained.

Missoula County Sheriff Mike McMeekin said during his testimony that he has made his public opinion on the amendments and Initiative 2 well known. He has said publicly that he will not apply initiative or the amendments to his department.

The tone of the hearing shifted when Van Valkenburg said that he had proposed the amendments because of a "gut feeling" that Missoula voters were not "detail-oriented" enough to understand the complete scope of the initiative.

Van Valkenburg said, "People who deal with big quantities of marijuana are significantly different then people who deal with smaller possessions of marijuana" and that "people [Missoula County voters] did not understand the impact the initiative would have on large quantities of marijuana in our community."

The language of the original ballot stated the initiative was "to make the enforcement of laws related to adult marijuana offenses, including those laws related to the possession, processing and sale of marijuana, the lowest state priority" but does not reference the amount of marijuana, Van Valkenburg argued.

Van Valkenburg's "gut feeling" statement did not sit well with the crowd and many of the testimonies shifted away from the marijuana issues and argued that the commission should uphold on account of the voters' wishes and in the spirit of democracy.

Barry Adams, a long-time resident of Missoula said in reply to Van Valkenburg, "Are you calling the people in this county dumb? Are you saying that people didn't read this initiative?"

Chad Mullman, a spokesman for the University of Montana's Students for Responsible Drug Policy, said that if people did not understand this initiative then "all public initiatives are invalid."

"We may not all be pro-marijuana, but we are all pro-democracy," he said.

Rich Rosio-Bewes, a medical marijuana user, pointed to Van Valkenburg's chart said it was ridiculous to divide the vote on the initiative. "It is the same as the president's vote. The majority wins," he said.

Some people during the hearing, like Carey, advocated seeing how the initiative works before applying amendments to it and suggested that the commission delay their decision for one or two years.

A few law enforcement officials who spoke during the hearing were in support of the amendments. John Aadland, a highway patrolman for twenty years, said when it comes to defining marijuana as a low priority, "it is a tough position for highway patrolmen to look the other way."

Van Valkenburg responded at the end of the hearing that people live in a republic democracy, where representatives are elected to represent the majority. Having served as an elected representative in the Montana legislature and now as the county attorney, he said that his suggestions were very appropriate, because as elected representatives, the county has the "power and authority to amend this initiative."

"I am trying to implement this initiative in a reasonable fashion," Van Valkenburg said.

During his speech, Rosio-Bewes tore off a piece of paper and held it up to the County Commissioners, saying the piece represented an ounce. With the amendments, that piece of paper would be "the difference between someone going to prison and someone going home," he said.

News Hawk- User 420 MAGAZINE ® - Medical Marijuana Publication & Social Networking
Source: NewWest
Author: Stefanie Kilts
Contact: New West Network | Contact Us
Copyright: 2007 NewWest
Website: Missoula County Commission Amends Marijuana Initiative
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