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Jan. 1 brings legal pot to Montana, but implementation questions remain for police

Billings law enforcement make changes to adhere to new marijuana law
Posted at 12:34 PM, Jan 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-01 14:34:28-05

BILLINGS — As a New Year begins, Montana will also see a few new laws come into effect, and probably the most notable is the legalization of recreational marijuana beginning on Jan. 1.

Montanans over the age of 21 can now use marijuana at leisure after voters approved Initiative 190 in November.

In Billings, law enforcement is making changes to the way they enforce the use of marijuana to adhere to the new law, but many questions remain as to how the use of pot will impact communities like Billings already riddled with the drug epidemic.

“We usually deal with the broken end of whatever system is in place,” said Lt. Brandon Wooley with the Billings Police Department.“ Our concern is there's going to be those consequences, some type of impact on the community negatively.”

And as Wooley explains, there’s still a lot of unanswered questions for Montana law enforcement about the specifics of the law, something the Montana legislature will have to address soon.

But this concern is no surprise. Both Billings Police Chief Rich St John and Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder came out in October against the initiative saying drugs are the main driver for property and violent crimes in Billings.

Still, the voters have spoken, and Wooley says officers respect that.

“The police department is here to enforce the rules that the voters have gone for and so that's what we'll do,” he said.

And there’s good reason according to supporters for the new law. Backers of I-190 said this now frees up police to focus on more serious crimes.

Supporters also say legalizing recreational marijuana would generate much-needed tax revenue.

A study by the University of Montana's Bureau of Business and Economic Research estimated recreational marijuana could generate more than $43 million a year for the state.

Still, Wooley said there’s much to be determined with the measure.

“And so we're waiting for the legislature to come out with more information on what is going to be a criminal offense versus a civil offense,” he said.

Until then here’s what BPD plans to do with enforcement.

“Marijuana will be legal to possess for 21 and over, under one ounce or eight grams of some type of concentrate whether that's going to be a tincture or an oil, edibles, something like that,” Wooley said. “No longer will we be, you know, seizing those misdemeanor amounts.”

Combatting small marijuana crimes were never a high priority for the department anyway, according to Wooley.

But here’s what you can’t do according to Wooley: Smoking it in public is not allowed and will be enforced, and Montana statue says no one can drive under the influence of any substance.

“We still will be involved in, let's say if you got four or five pounds on you and you've got evidence of trafficking and distribution. We're still going to seize everything and we're still going to forward through for the county attorney's office for prosecution,” he said.

Another item Billings police will need to address when it comes to the legalization of recreational pot is the use of drug dogs.

Wooley says two of their drug dogs were never trained for marijuana detection, so he said it’s going to be up to officers to make sure there’s additional probable cause before deploying a search dog.