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Missoula Joins other Western Cities on Marijuana Prioritization

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Missoula voters were not alone in their decision to de-prioritize adult marijuana offenses this month. The Garden City joins the ranks nine other western cities with similar measures -- possibly 10 if San Francisco passes one this week.

If the San Francisco Board of Supervisors gives it the final nod, San Francisco will join Seattle, Denver, a slew of California cities and of course, Missoula.

On Election Day, Missoula County voters passed Initiative 2 with 54 percent approval. Missoula city and county leaders are still weighing options with how to handle the mandate and are concerned with some of the possible impacts on the community.

"Law enforcement and our office believe that this initiative was unnecessary or worse, a subterfuge for the legalization of marijuana," Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg said.

Angela Goodhope, a spokeswoman for Citizens for Responsible Crime Policy, the group behind Initiative 2, dismisses the charge of clandestine attempts at legalization. "We've never even considered it," Goodhope said. "That would have to come from the state level." Goodhope has heard various voices of dissent through the course of the campaign.

"Many people have expressed their concerns that this will send the wrong message to kids," Goodhope said. "But if you look at the studies that have come out in Seattle the data shows the contrary."

Seattle passed their Initiative 75 three years ago. It differs from the Missoula initiative in that it requires that police officers make adult marijuana use the lowest priority offence. The Missoula initiative recommends that police officers make it the lowest priority. Both initiatives include the creation of an oversight committee to keep track of the trends in marijuana arrests.

Van Valkenburg is not enthusiastic about the prospect of an oversight committee. He fears that the initiative will place extra burden, not less, on law enforcement and people in his office. "We will have to submit reports to the committee and spend far more time dealing with marijuana charges than we have before."

Goodhope maintained that the measure is meant to actually allow officers to spend less time on marijuana offenses eventually.

"Missoula County arrested twice as many people for marijuana as the national average per capita," Goodhope said. "The oversight committee will break marijuana away from everything else and we'll be able to see how much time and money we are spending on prosecuting adult marijuana."

There is no reason to believe that marijuana arrest rates will drop, said Van Valkenburg. "The only time marijuana arrests occur are when police are arresting people for something else and find the person in possession of marijuana."

The Missoula oversight committee will be made up of nine volunteers: two criminal defense attorneys; one harm-reduction advocate; one drug abuse and prevention counselor; one civil liberties advocate; one medical marijuana patient; and three other county residents whose perspectives aren't specified by the initiative.

Dominic Holden, a prominent drug reform activist and director of the Seattle Hempfest, was Chair of Initiative 75 and instrumental to its success. He currently sits as a citizen member on Seattle's oversight committee. The panel created reporting criteria for the Seattle police department and they have been tracking marijuana arrests for the past two years.

"Arrests have dropped by 60 percent," Holden said. The reporting criteria breaks cases down by the primary and subsequent charges. Last year only 14 cases in the City of Seattle were simply for marijuana possession and only four of the people arrested spent any time in jail. The total number of arrests in Seattle grew during the same period, Holden points to this as proof that resources have been freed up to focus on more serious crimes. This was a central argument of Goodhope and Citizens for Responsible Crime Policy in the campaign for Initiative 2.

Missoula Mayor John Engen voiced his concerns in an interview last week with Courtney Lowery. "It takes away discretion and choice and tempers officers' ability to think on their feet and make good judgments on the ground and that's what we're paying them to do," he said.

Holden argues that law enforcement already enjoys a wide array of discretion in the laws they choose to prosecute. "I know of a law in Texas that makes it a criminal offence not to walk with a purpose. Another law limits the amount of time one can spend sitting on a park bench. There are a number of laws on the book that aren't practical and marijuana laws are perhaps the most damaging."

"The vast majority of people who smoke marijuana are not otherwise a part of the crime problem and police officers need the freedom to use discretion with drug laws." Holden said. "You wouldn't arrest someone for having a martini after work."


Newshawk: User - 420 Magazine
Source: NewWest
Pubdate: 21 November 2006
Author: Kerry McMannis
Copyright: 2006 NewWest
Contact: New West Network | Articles by Kerry McMannis
Website: New West Network | Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming
 
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