As Missoula County commissioners consider altering the ballot initiative voters passed recommending that law enforcement officials render adult marijuana crimes their lowest priority, the group charged with overseeing the initiative has requested the commissioners hold off.
“Any effort to change this initiative, at this early juncture before it’s even been used, is premature,” Chairman John Masterson said at the marijuana initiative oversight committee’s March 9 meeting. “It’s like debating which style of mustache we should put on Mona Lisa.”
The nine-member committee voted 6–2, with one abstention, to approve a resolution asking county commissioners to not amend the initiative for a two-year evaluation period. County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg recently asked the commissioners to limit the initiative’s scope to misdemeanor possession marijuana offenses, and commissioners will weigh that request along with public comment at a March 21 public hearing at 4:30 p.m. in County Courthouse room 201.
As enacted by voters in November 2006, the initiative applies to all adult marijuana crimes, including felony possession—having more than 60 grams of marijuana—as well as cultivating or selling marijuana, though its recommendations don’t actually change state law. Van Valkenburg told the oversight committee in February that, as currently written, the initiative may present a conflict between his office and the sheriff’s department. While Van Valkenburg says he’ll tell his staff to put marijuana cases at the bottom of the stack in accordance with the initiative, Sheriff Mike McMeekin says he won’t dictate priorities to his sheriff’s deputies.
Van Valkenburg’s reasoning swayed the oversight committee’s members who spoke against the group’s resolution, saying the committee should foster good relations by cooperating with law enforcement’s request.
Ultimately, though, most committee members said they weren’t willing to support premature changes to the initiative voters approved, especially since they’re the ones charged with overseeing its implementation.
“I think the initiative was a powerful expression of public opinion,” member Charles Tiernan said. “It’s a political statement…and if a majority of the voters wanted this initiative, I think they would be disappointed in amendments.”