High numbers 

New report sparks up more marijuana debate

Tension between law enforcement and supporters of an initiative to make marijuana offenses the county’s lowest priority peaked last week with a report that claims the Missoula Police Department (MPD) has significantly increased its pot arrests in 2008.

The report, released by the Marijuana Community Oversight Committee, concludes that, “While there has been a slight decrease in marijuana incidents reported by the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department, frequency of such incidents by the Missoula Police Department appears to have increased by over 60 percent.” The committee formed after Initiative 2 passed in November 2006, and is charged with reporting back to the county commissioners on its implementation.

Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir takes exception with the report on two fronts: the initiative does not extend to city officials and, even if it did, the assertion that city police officers are targeting marijuana is wrong.

“It is clear that the committee intends to use this report as a foundation to build or stir up community support to pass a similar initiative at the local level,” Muir says.

Regardless, the statistics involve a fair amount of guesswork, a fact the report acknowledges. “Ideally, the data from public officials would be received by the committee in a standardized format,” the report states. “While we are getting closer to that goal with this report, our 2007 data was imperfect, and so drawing comparative conclusions may not be sound.”

For instance, the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department reported 41 misdemeanor marijuana arrests or citations during the first six months of 2007. To reach their total for the year, the committee doubled that number. The city of Missoula, meanwhile, reported 108 arrests or citations between January and August 2007. Projecting the same rate across the rest of the year, the committee concluded that the Missoula Police Department arrested or cited 174 marijuana offenses.

Through the first half of 2008, the sheriff’s office reported 36 marijuana incidents. Doubling that number, the committee reached 72 separate incidents for the year, a 13 percent decline from the 2007 estimate. City police reported 142 incidents, or 284 when doubled, a 63 percent increase over the 2007 estimate. That tally led the committee to state: “The voters’ recommendation is apparently being ignored by most of the officials in a position to heed it.”

Muir condemns the conclusion. The actual year-to-date numbers, he says, reflect an increase in all drug offenses of only 16 percent.

“I can chalk up the increase to this: We’ve had a 52 percent increase in disorderly conduct arrests. We’ve had a 177 percent increase in adult alcohol offenses,” he says. “That’s the direct result of a six-week prioritization attacking the issue of underage drinking.”

For their part, the committee blames law enforcement for the fuzzy math, stating “our information-gathering efforts have proven challenging, and our sense is that the custodians of the public information we have requested only reluctantly provide it.”

The current records system makes it nearly impossible to track a case from arrest through the judicial system without that individual’s name. To that end, committee chair John Masterson asked the city and county to come up with a program that could pull the relevant information without names.

That would create too much liability, Muir says.

“[The sheriff and I] are the ones responsible if somebody’s private information leaks. If I put a name out that hasn’t been charged, I’ve libeled that person.”

The challenge of supplying accurate statistics to the committee is just one of the problems Muir has with the initiative. If a similar measure were to be passed at the local level, he says it would be impossible for his officers to follow.

Muir explains there are certain levels of discretion available to an officer, depending on the case. For example, an officer can be charged with criminal negligence for not enforcing a potential domestic abuse case. Therefore, the department has eliminated discretion to limit liability.

The same rules apply if, for instance, an officer breaks up a fight, pats down the combatants and comes across a stash. Muir says the drugs must be considered.

“Our officers have to account for that marijuana. Period. Somewhere down the road, someone’s going to claim, 'That cop took three pounds of weed off me,' and I don’t know what he did with it,” says Muir. “I’m going to protect them from wrongful accusations as long as they follow good structured police work.”

While the MPD receives the brunt of the blame in the committee’s report, Sheriff Mike McMeekin and County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg garnered praise for the county’s decrease in marijuana arrests. However, McMeekin says, he hasn’t changed his enforcement efforts at all.

“In fact,” he says, “I put that in the form of written department policy when the initiative first became effective. The other factors…are undoubtedly the normal ebb and flow of incident types and no different than the regular statistical ups and downs of traffic offenses, criminal offenses, etc.”

In the spirit of the initiative, Van Valkenburg has held off on prosecuting misdemeanor marijuana offenses as long as drugs are the only offense. Muir believes that if such an initiative were to pass in the city, it would fall to the city attorney to make such a decision.

“The law says a person in possession of marijuana has committed a [crime]. And you know, we don’t make the laws, we just get stuck enforcing them. And people, when we’re not enforcing the law, get unhappy with us.”
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