Bill Would Decriminalize Possessing Small Amounts of Marijuana

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Legislators are considering a bill that would decriminalize adult possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana in Montana, instead making it a civil violation to hold smaller amounts of the drug.

House Bill 541, introduced by Democratic Rep. Brady Wiseman of Bozeman, would allow for a civil penalty of $100 for adults caught holding 30 grams or less. Current law allows a criminal misdemeanor charge for holding anything under 60 grams of marijuana, with a fine up to $500 and jail time up to 6 months.

The proposed law would also apply to marijuana paraphernalia carried by adults.

Wiseman says studies indicate decriminalization could save the state thousands of dollars in enforcement costs, and reduce marijuana use in Montana.

“The opinion that somehow decriminalization results in higher rates of use is flat wrong,” Wiseman told members of the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

Legislative services estimates the proposed law would save the state’s Office of the Public Defender about $44,000 a year in legal costs. But savings could be substantially higher if law enforcement costs were included in the tally, said the bill’s supporters.

Marijuana enforcement laws were softened in Missoula County in 2007, after voters approved the change in a ballot initiative. The county’s rules now ask law enforcement officers not to arrest adults who are carrying under 60 grams of marijuana. They also instruct prosecutors to make charging marijuana misdemeanors a low priority.

But the most recent impact report from a citizen committee that was also created by the initiative claims law enforcement in the county has generally ignored the new arrest guidelines.

“Our current marijuana policy in Montana is an expensive government program that harms people and is ineffective,” said John Masterson, chairman of the citizen oversight committee.

Other counties throughout the United States have also issued what are known as deprioritization rules regarding the arrest of adults holding marijuana, and 13 states have decriminalized carrying small amounts of marijuana to some degree, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

“Once police get over their first opposition and phobias, which is in general the reaction, they pretty quickly realize it’s functional,” said Allen St. Pierre, director of NORML.

The Montana Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, the Montana County Attorneys Association, the Montana Association of Chiefs of Police and other law enforcement groups testified in opposition to the bill.

“We believe that decriminalization of marijuana in any amount sends a message statewide that marijuana is not a harmful drug,” said Jeff Jergens on behalf of the Montana Narcotics Officers Association.

Putting limits on enforcement could also have the dangerous effect of reducing marijuana’s price in Montana, and complicate preventing marijuana DUIs, opponents said.

“You can argue that it’s harmless, but we’ve also proved that it impairs your ability to drive,” said Jesse Slaughter, spokesman for the Montana Police Protective Association.

Supporters, though, say current law leads to charges that permanently mar a person’s record and carry harsh punishments that are out of scope with the crime.

“The way that this is enforced, there are all sorts of people that you know and love that use marijuana recreationally like you may use martinis or a glass of wine, and they are functioning adults,” said Scott Crichton, executive director of the Montana American Civil Liberties Union.

The Montana Citizens for Responsible Crime Policy and Patients and Families United, a support group for medical marijuana patients, also testified in favor of the measure.

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