It’s not always easy for elected officials to stomach the will of the voters. Sometimes the electorate makes decisions representatives don’t personally or professionally like, and sometimes we vote in people or ideas that cause more harm than good. For better or worse, that’s the way democracy works. And so, when national voters tap a spoiled Texas lout for president or Oregon voters pass a takings initiative gutting the state’s land-use planning, we suffer the consequences collectively.
Enter Initiative 2, which 55 percent of Missoula County voters passed in November. It recommended that law enforcement officials treat adult marijuana crimes—including possession, growing and selling—as their lowest priority and called for the creation of a citizen oversight committee on the issue.
On March 21, County Commissioners Barbara Evans and Jean Curtiss changed the initiative so the recommendation applies to misdemeanor crimes (possession up to 59 ounces) but not felony crimes (more than 60 ounces, and cultivating or selling). County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg lobbied for the changes, arguing he had a “gut feeling” voters didn’t realize their votes’ implication and that the initiative would cause conflict between his office and that of Sheriff Mike McMeekin, who openly refuses to dictate priorities to his deputies.
Curtiss says she supported the amendments despite vocal opposition at the public hearing because, “it was going to be very difficult for [Van Valkenburg] to implement the initiative as passed by the voters in a reasonable fashion. I would hope the community would give the commission credit for the fact that we could have said it’s a bunch of baloney and we won’t even waste our time with it…I guess they recommended we do A, B and C and we did A and B.”
Commissioner Bill Carey voted against the amendments, saying the county should honor the voters’ will, particularly given that, “It cannot and does not make [law enforcement] do anything.”
Curtiss is correct that the county could choose to ignore all or part of the public’s recommendation (look no further than McMeekin for that attitude in action). It seems such a frank approach might have been easier than altering an initiative that simply tried to convey to local leaders a sentiment most citizens feel. Judging from the frustrated calls and letters we’re fielding, this is more about editing the democratic process than marijuana. The initiative has been changed, but the voters’ will is not so easily amended.