Montana Editorial Roundup
The Associated Press
Jan. 17, 2018
Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Jan. 16, on needing more police to deter impaired driving:
Montana Highway Patrol officers report that 13 traffic fatalities, or more than half of the 23 fatalities in the Bozeman area last year, involved alcohol or drug impairment. That may not sound surprising to some, but it's notable if for no other reason than it is significantly higher than the national average. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, less than a third of national traffic deaths, 29 percent, involved impaired drivers.
The local numbers are small and, therefore, prone to be skewed. But they underscore a big problem Montanans have: the highest or nearly highest rate of alcohol-related traffic fatalities in the nation in every recent year.
It hasn't been for lack of effort. Anti-DUI advocates are many and vocal and have fought for changes in DUI laws at every level of government. And state lawmakers have responded with stiffer penalties and a lower felony threshold and wider use of continuous ankle bracelet monitoring for repeat offenders.
And still the state DUI rate remains disturbingly high.
But there is one measure that will make a difference: more police. If policymakers are willing to put sufficient numbers of officers on the roads and streets, they will bust more offenders before they can kill. And that will change the behavior of at least some offenders.
The Bozeman police chief late last year presented a report to city commissioners that found the police department needs more officers to keep up with population growth — more than a dozen in total. The report, conducted by an outside firm, concluded what should be obvious: Population growth means growth in crime numbers, including DUIs. And it's not just Bozeman that is feeling the strains of growth. Communities and rural areas throughout Southwest Montana are seeing more people move in.
State lawmakers and local policymakers have a lot to consider when they set their budgets. But they are urged to consider the impact more law enforcement officers can make. More officers mean more eyes on the traffic, and larger staffs can free up officers for regular DUI spot checks on roads that will help deter impaired driving.
Montana's many more miles of two-lane roads relative to other more populated states will almost necessarily entail higher traffic fatality rates. But getting as many impaired drivers off the road as possible will help.
And that will take more police.
Billings Gazette, Jan. 15, on rumbles saving lives on Montana highways:
Montana's highway crash statistics are going in the right direction: The state's traffic death toll was lower in each of the past two years than it had been since 1989.
The bad news is that 187 people died on Montana roads last year. Even though that was 37 fewer lives lost than in 2015 and three fewer than in 2016, 187 lives is a terrible loss.
The number of crashes and deaths on interstate highways and urban streets actually increased over the past two years, according to Montana Highway Patrol data. But that was more than offset by reductions in fatal crashes on primary, rural and secondary roads. The largest drop in fatalities was recorded on rural roads — those two-lane stretches where traffic may be lighter but safety enhancements are likely to be lacking. Drivers on lonely roads are more likely to nod off, drift off and crash. The injured may be a great distance from definitive trauma care.
The MHP's preliminary data for 2017 shows a remarkable decrease in fatal crashes in which investigators suspected alcohol or other drug involvement. There was also a decrease in victims who were fatally injured while not wearing a seat belt. Lack of seat belt use and drivers impaired by drug use have always been major factors in Montana's high traffic death toll.
Along with changes in driver behavior, Montana traffic safety experts credit centerline rumble strips for preventing some of the worst crashes.
Montana Department of Transportation Director Mike Tooley and MHP Col. Tom Butler speculate that those annoyingly jarring and noisy bumps may be partially responsible for the reduction in highway fatalities in the past two years.
"Really, it's the only thing that has significantly changed on our highways system from a design perspective in the last 40 years," Butler, the MHP chief, told the Missoulian.
"I've had people complain and then the next month thank us for them," said Tooley, whose career was with the Montana Highway Patrol before Gov. Steve Bullock appointed him to lead MDOT.
The MDOT has installed 2,625 miles of centerline rumble strips on two-lane roads in Billings, Butte and Great Falls districts. The work was completed with a federal safety improvement grant at a cost of about $3,300 per mile. Tooley said additional districts are slated for centerline rumble strips.
To get the most benefit for the safety grant, rumble strip projects target locations where crashes have occurred and also roads that have similar characteristics, Tooley said. An electronic safety management system that has been in use for a few years allows MDOT to identify the places where rumble strips can be most effective.
The Federal Highway Safety Administration reports that centerline rumble strips have been shown to reduce head-on, opposite-direction and sideswipe fatal and injury crashes by 44 percent to 64 percent.
Montana's decrease in highway fatalities is all the more amazing because it has occurred while people are driving more miles in Montana. After decreasing in 2008, Montana's billions of miles traveled measures have risen every year through 2016. Data for 2017 isn't available yet.
Fewer deaths with more miles of driving adds up to safer roads.
Montanans will have to stay on this safety track for years to reverse our rank as the third most deadly driving state. The improvement seen in the past two years should remind Montanans that each of us can make a difference. Choosing a designated driver or calling a ride prevents DUI and death. Buckling up on every trip boosts your chance of arriving alive. Don't be an MHP statistic; be safe.
Missoulian, Jan. 14, on Montana's congressional delegates pushing Congress for certainty on medical marijuana:
This week could prove a fateful time for marijuana in the United States, and for the medical marijuana industry in Montana.
The new year has already brought a major change in the way marijuana is viewed by top federal enforcers. On Jan. 4, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions released a memo to all U.S. Attorneys rescinding, "effective immediately," ''previous nationwide guidance specific to marijuana enforcement" — in reference to Obama-era instructions to largely defer to marijuana laws in individual states.
Montana's U.S. attorney, Kurt Alme, has not said whether his office intends to do things any differently in light of the memo. He has said, however, that he intends to follow the laws set by Congress.
This week, the ball is in Congress's court. The nation's senators and representatives, including Montana's delegation, must act decisively to eliminate as much uncertainty as possible, and reauthorize an important budget amendment that prohibits the use of federal funds to undermine state marijuana laws.
It's simply the ethical thing to do. For many patients, marijuana is the medicine of last resort — the thing they try when all else has failed. Threatening to take away their last shred of hope is just cruel.
It's also the practical thing to do from a legislative perspective. Various states have enacted and adjusted different laws with regard to marijuana, with no apparent catastrophic effects. What do the American people stand to gain by having our federal government beat back these advancements?
Through a series of steps forward and back, Montana too has taken significant strides to steady its medical marijuana industry, providing more certainty for both providers and patients, while leaving law enforcement free to pursue higher-priority crime.
Heading into 2018, the industry in Montana is more solid than ever, but a reversal in federal policy could jeopardize that progress.
Montana's medical marijuana market has operated in an uncertain environment since its very beginning, in 2004, when more than 60 percent of voters approved a ballot initiative allowing its use. Just a few years later, the Montana Legislature passed a bill repealing the initiative; it was vetoed by then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
Over the years, more successful legislative machinations placed restrictions on the state's program and significantly reduced the total number of cardholders; at its height in mid-2011, just before a set of restrictions went into place, some 31,000 Montana residents were registered to use medical marijuana. By the end of 2016, only about 7,500 cardholders were still registered.
Then, in 2016, Montana voters approved another ballot initiative, backed by many in the medical marijuana industry, with the goal of holding the industry to more professional standards while making it easier for qualified patients to obtain quality medicine. Notably, post-traumatic stress disorder was added as a condition for which patients could obtain medical marijuana.
At last count, the number of cardholders enrolled in the state's medical marijuana program was approaching 22,000. This serves to show just how strongly Montana's medical marijuana laws are tied to patient access.
In the most recent regular legislative session, in early 2017, Montana passed yet another law affecting medical marijuana. Senate Bill 333 mandates testing of medical marijuana and tracking of sales — and added a 4 percent tax to those sales.
Although this editorial board opposes the taxation of medicine, it is important to note that Montana collected nearly $400,000 in revenues in its first quarter; the next quarter deadline is Jan. 15. This July, the tax will drop to 2 percent. Presumably, the increasing amount of medical marijuana sales (more than 300 providers paid taxes on a total of $7.5 million in gross revenues) will make up for the tax rate decrease.
In any case, that's nothing to sneeze at in a time when state agencies are facing a bleak revenue outlook and painful budget cuts. The Montana Medical Marijuana Program is overseen by the Department of Public Health and Human Services, which eats up the largest share of the state budget and consequently was dealt the largest share of budget cuts. The money collected through the new tax goes into a special fund to cover the costs of administrating the program.
Montana's program is unique, yet not entirely different from those of the 29 other states that have passed medical marijuana laws. Of these, voters in eight states have approved recreational marijuana use; last week, Vermont's elected officials voted to legalize recreational marijuana as well.
Federal laws make no distinction between medical and recreational use. Montanans should be allowed to continue to draw these and any other relevant distinctions for ourselves, without federal interference. State and federal agents will still be able, of course, to charge and arrest anyone operating outside the bounds of Montana law.
Congress is expected to vote on a federal budget by this Friday, Jan. 19, when the current continuing budget resolution will expire. Among other important considerations, an annual provision known as the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment is up for re-authorization. This is the provision that stops federal agencies from spending federal money to pursue cases considered legal under state marijuana laws.
As a congressional directive, the amendment provides much-needed guidance to the nation's attorneys general on whether to pursue marijuana cases.
Amid what is certain to be a turbulent atmosphere for fiscal 2018 budget discussions, Montana's U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines, and U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, have a duty to grant this guidance. Even if our delegation has qualms about marijuana, this is a states' rights issue they should embrace.
They must voice their clear intention to support the re-authorization of this amendment — and continued support for Montana's medical marijuana laws.