Pubdate: Fri, 16 Jun 2006
Source: La Crosse Tribune (WI)
Copyright: 2006 The La Crosse Tribune
Author: Dan Simmons, La Crosse Tribune
Bookmark: (Marijuana)
Bookmark: (Drug Courts)



A new La Crosse County ordinance would send criminal charges up in 
smoke for low-risk offenders busted with under 25 grams - a little 
less than an ounce - of marijuana.

At a Thursday meeting, the county board voted 15-12 to pass the 
ordinance, which would send first-time offenders away with a citation 
and fine instead of a misdemeanor charge.

The vote followed nearly two hours of debate that included testimony 
from the district attorney, a judge and the county sheriff - and a 
few moments of levity that would please Cheech and Chong.

District Attorney Scott Horne argued against the ordinance, saying 
the current system identifies problem offenders early, before they 
move on to more serious drug abuse and criminal behavior, and doesn't 
taint their records if they follow court-ordered education and 
community-service programs.

"The ordinance sends the wrong message to the community and removes 
the current emphasis on education and assessment," he said.

County board member and defense attorney Keith Belzer then engaged 
Horne in a questioning that resembled a cross-examination at trial.

Belzer asked if Horne intended to use the ordinance if passed.

"The county board can't compel a prosecution strategy," Horne 
replied, adding "there should be further discussion about it" if passed.

La Crosse County Circuit Judge John Perlich, who presides over the 
county's Drug Court, wasted no time challenging most of what Horne said.

He held four criminal complaints for minor marijuana possession from 
a recent day, which he riffled through with his fingers as he recited 
a long list of clerks who spent time filing and processing the complaints.

"All this for a low-risk offender - all this costs you, the taxpayer, 
a lot of money," he said.

Onalaska, Wis., has had a similar ordinance in place for more than 
two decades, he said, "and last I checked, it's not a den of 
dope-smoking meth-heads."

Board member and Central High School microeconomics teacher Jim Berns 
also argued against the ordinance, saying he's seen too many young 
lives derailed by drug abuse. The current approach, he said, "allows 
them to turn a poor or impulsive decision into something positive."

Belzer said he's represented many clients whose lives were equally 
affected by the legal snarls and inability to get insurance benefits 
and student loans after being busted for having marijuana seeds in an ashtray.

But like Horne, La Crosse County Sheriff Michael Weissenberger voiced 
strong opposition to the ordinance. Marijuana possession, even in 
small amounts, is reason for concern, he said.

"How do we know the person didn't just get done selling more of it?" he said.

Toward the end of the debate, board member Ray Ebert asked 
Weissenberger how many joints could be rolled from 25 grams of 
marijuana - the legal limit under the ordinance.

"Depends on how you roll them," Weissenberger replied.

Board chairman Steve Doyle interjected.

"Any marijuana users out there want to fill us in?" he said, 
addressing the 28 board members present.

All broke out in laughter. None answered his question.
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