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Marijuana arrests in Missoula continue despite low-priority designation

Marijuana arrests in Missoula continue despite low-priority designation

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People are getting picked up with pot nearly daily in Missoula County - at least they were a year ago, and the year before that, too.

That's the latest from a committee that's been monitoring marijuana arrests in the county since 2007, a year after Missoula County voters approved an initiative making marijuana arrests a low priority.

Committee reports generally lag months - or, as in this case, an entire year - behind the times because of the labor-intensive nature of compiling such statistics, agreed Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir and John Masterson, who heads the Community Oversight Committee.

That's one of the few areas of agreement between Muir and Masterson, who also heads Montana NORML, or National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

To Muir, the numbers and the types of arrests that produce them indicate that marijuana already was a low priority for law enforcement.

As the report notes, "police are unlikely to encounter marijuana without having some other reason for contact."

Masterson says that no matter the underlying reason for an encounter, police should ignore small amounts of pot.

"If someone's swerving down the road and there's evidence marijuana is the cause of that, it's different," he said. "... If it's in the course of a traffic stop for a blinker being out, there's simply nothing wrong with adult responsible use of marijuana. To spend any law enforcement resources which we need for so many other important rules to keep our city safe is just a misuse of public resources."

Law enforcement in Missoula County reported 174 marijuana incidents from July through December 2009, compared to 180 in the previous six months, according to the report.

Muir's not a fan of the every-six-months comparisons.

"It's a completely illogical comparison," he said, pointing out that Missoula's population fluctuates seasonally with the arrival and departure of University of Montana students. "To compare the months of July, August and September to the months of January through June, it just doesn't work."

The committee tallied 354 marijuana incidents in 2009, as compared to 360 in 2008.

Across the board, the Missoula Police Department was involved in a majority of the incidents - 234 of 2009's 354. Nearly half of the incidents - 46 percent - came as a result of police dealing with traffic stops, disturbances, driving under the influence or suspicious activity.

"According to police, they are never isolated charges," said Missoula city attorney Jim Nugent.

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Whatever the reason the arrests are made, incidents involving small amounts of marijuana are misdemeanors usually handled in Municipal Court, resulting in fines, surcharges and a chemical dependency evaluation, said Becky Eamon, senior Municipal Court clerk.

"Our prosecutors are aware of that countywide initiative and the fact that the sentiment is there," Nugent said. "But once the police issue a citation and it's in court, we've kind of got it in our lap."

No matter how negligible the penalty, though, "now you have a criminal record when you're applying for jobs, financial aid, or loans," Masterson said.

Masterson would like to see a bill introduced during the legislative session, which starts Monday, that would legalize marijuana use by adults, and tax it.

In the meantime, his committee will continue to monitor the incidents in Missoula County. That job is about to get tougher.

Muir notified Masterson in October that - much as other government agencies do when public records are requested - the Police Department will begin charging for the time it takes to go through its files and pull information on marijuana incidents, which are not categorized separately.

Muir estimated the cost of compiling a year's information at a few hundred dollars.

"We're certainly going to keep doing the reports" as mandated by the initiative, Masterson said. But his fellow committee members are volunteers.

"We'll be approaching this with careful thought and legal backing to ensure that we can fulfill our responsibility without causing any undue expense or stress" on the police department, Masterson said.

Reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, gwen.florio

@missoulian.com or CopsAndCourts.com.

 

 

 

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