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October 20, 2007 - The Missoulian (MT)

Missoula County Attorney To Police: Halt Misdemeanor Arrests For Pot

By Tristan Scott, Of The Missoulian

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Nearly a year after voters made the Garden City a little greener by asking county law enforcement to ignore adult marijuana offenses, Missoula's top prosecutor has adopted an official policy to uphold the referendum.

"In the interest of compliance with the 2006 voter initiative on marijuana . we are asking law enforcement officers to stop arresting individuals or writing and submitting tickets (with mandatory appearance dates) where the offense committed is solely possession of marijuana in misdemeanor amounts or possession of drug paraphernalia intended for use of marijuana," according to a draft of the policy by Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg, an outspoken opponent of the measure.

Van Valkenburg's policy also instructs deputy prosecutors to charge misdemeanor marijuana cases on a lowest-priority basis when marijuana is the sole offense

"We will treat them as uncharged cases that will be assigned to a prosecutor and charged on a lowest priority basis," according to the policy. "If charged, we will seek issuance of a summons with the complaint."

If a defendant is charged but has no criminal record of consequence, county attorneys will offer a deferred prosecution agreement rather than filing formal charges. No court appearance would be required.

Dubbed Initiative 2 and approved by 55 percent of Missoula's electorate in last November's election, the countywide measure asked law enforcement to make adult marijuana possession offenses the lowest priority.

It also established a community oversight committee to investigate marijuana arrests and produce a report on the initiative's effects one year after passage.

The committee will annually track and report to taxpayers how much local government time and money is being spent on adult marijuana offenses as compared to other law enforcement issues.

On Friday morning, a quorum of the nine-member oversight committee met to discuss final details of the annual report, which will be available to members of the public on Nov. 14.

The committee's chairman, John Masterson, said the initial report will lack some data, and blames the shortcomings in part on the records-keeping processes at several Missoula County and state agencies.

For example, the report will not conclusively show by what percentage, if any, pot busts have declined since the measure passed because many marijuana charges are "custodial citations," meaning the discovery of marijuana was incidental to another crime and the person was booked, searched and arrested for reasons other than drug possession.

Statistics where marijuana was the primary arresting offense have been difficult to come by, Masterson said.

"The only statistic that really stands out to me is that people are still getting busted for adult misdemeanor marijuana offenses," Masterson said.

However, he said Van Valkenburg's policy satisfies the committee's expectations of how county officials should be handling personal levels of marijuana.

"That's substantial compliance," Masterson said.

In March, Missoula County commissioners voted to narrow the initiative's scope and apply it only to misdemeanor, or personal-use amounts of marijuana, arguing that voters didn't realize the full range of the measure when they supported it.

In making his case for the amendments, Van Valkenburg emphasized that Initiative 2 is a mere suggestion to county law enforcement, and does not change any laws prohibiting marijuana use.

On the Web

To read archived e-mails exchanged between members of Missoula's Initiative 2 oversight committee and minutes of their meetings, go online to:

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