Missoula authorities work to establish medical marijuana protocol

January 03, 2005

Colin McDonald , The Missoulan

A man walks down the steps of a downtown bar smoking a bowl of marijuana. A Missoula police officer spots him and inquires about the pipe. The smoker produces a letter showing he is a 'qualifying patient' under the state Medical Marijuana Act. After a few questions, the officer wishes the man a good evening.

At least that's how Missoula City Police Chief Bob Weaver describes how a person could be found smoking marijuana in Missoula and not be charged with the misdemeanor of possession.

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The challenge facing the Weaver, Missoula County Sheriff Mike McMeekin and County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg is how to move from easily defined scenarios to enforcing a law that's still in its infancy.

'We are all pretty focused in our commitment that qualifying patients will not be criminalized,' said McMeekin. 'It's just trying to figure out how to do that is the problem.'

McMeekin has a list of 26 questions falling under seven different categories about how he and his deputies are to interpret the new law, which went into effect Saturday. The questions include: What will the registration cards look like? Must patients and caregivers possessing pot be Montana residents? Where will the marijuana come from, and how can patients legally obtain seeds?

'Our principal rule is to make sure we don't prosecute someone who we are not supposed to,' Van Valkenburg said.

Until he has answers, McMeekin has issued a temporary order to his deputies saying, 'No enforcement action relating to the purchase, possession or use of marijuana by any person claiming or believed to be a qualifying patient or caregiver will be undertaken by any employee of this department without the prior consent of the Missoula county attorney or upon orders by a court of competent jurisdiction.'

What that means in practice is that McMeekin will trust his deputies to evaluate each situation and take appropriate action. Weaver said he will take a similar approach.

If a deputy pulls over a car on the highway because of a broken tail light and discovers a small bag of marijuana in the driver's glove compartment, it will be up to the officer to decide what action to take, McMeekin said.

If the driver is not under the influence of the drug, can show proof of being registered as a qualifying patient, and there are no suspicious circumstances, the officer may just record the pertinent information and let the driver go.

But if the officer is for some reason suspicious, a ticket will be issued and the driver must plead his or her case in court. Possession of less than 60 grams of marijuana is a misdemeanor.

'It would be like not having insurance,' said narcotics detective Tom Lewis. 'You would just go to court to show the paperwork.'

However, Van Valkenburg said, if someone lies about being on the registry, they could be charged with obstructing an officer. Both he and Lewis expect a rash of such claims and attempts to falsify documents.

But until the registry is created, law officers will treat pot possession as they have in the past. As yet, no applications to qualify for medical marijuana have been returned to the Montana Licensure Bureau, which is charged with creating the registry for the state Department of Health and Human Services.

As of Monday, the bureau had sent out 92 applications and had 10 more waiting for the afternoon mail. If any of those applications are returned, the bureau will have five days to determine if the individual qualifies and then 15 days to issue a card.

Once the cards are issued, the real test of the new law will begin.

'For the people with the cards, please be patient with us,' McMeekin said. 'The officers and deputies have the same questions you do.'

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