Missoula Heeds Voters on Pot Arrests; Denver Still Deaf


In sharp contrast with the authorities in Denver, who essentially ignored a 2005 ballot initiative that repealed local penalties for marijuana possession, the top prosecutor in Missoula County, Montana, has asked police to stop arresting pot smokers, citing a 2006 referendum that said such arrests should be the lowest law enforcement priority. Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg strongly opposed the referendum but is nonetheless heeding the message sent by voters:

"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.

In Denver, where police have continued to charge people for marijuana possession under state law, the folks behind the 2005 initiative are trying again with a measure similar to the one passed in Missoula County. It sounds like the Denver initiative is worded more strongly than Missoula County's, which the Missoulian (paraphrasing Van Valkenburg) characterizes as "a mere suggestion to county law enforcement." By contrast, the Denver initiative says "the Denver Police Department and City Attorney's Office shall make the investigation, arrest and prosecution of marijuana offenses, where the marijuana was intended for adult personal use, the City's lowest law enforcement priority" (emphasis added). Given the impact that a "mere suggestion" had in Missoula, I may have been wrong to describe the Denver measure as "purely symbolic." And whatever its practical impact, its symbolism is important as an expression of public disenchantment with at least some aspects of the war on drugs.

[Thanks to Jamie Kelly for the tip.]