Pubdate: Wed, 20 Apr 2016
Source: Isthmus (WI)
Copyright: 2016 Isthmus
Author: Cameron Bren


Dane County Pushing Municipalities to Lower Fines for Pot Possession

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi has seen how possession of a small 
amount of marijuana can affect families in vastly different ways.

"A young person would get charged with possession of marijuana, and 
their family would be facing a fine of over $1,000; that obviously 
comes down disproportionately on people living in poverty, and that 
can really set them back," Parisi says. "Fines wouldn't get paid, 
which would make it difficult or impossible for young people to get a job."

But the consequences can be much less crippling for others. "If 
someone in an upper-middle-class family would get a fine like that, 
yes, it would be inconvenient and a bummer for their family, but it 
would not change their life trajectory necessarily."

Although any amount of pot is illegal in Wisconsin, state law allows 
local governments to prosecute marijuana possession as an ordinance 
violation for amounts less than 25 grams - a little less than an 
ounce - with a current sale value in Madison between $290 and $370.

While the movement to legalize marijuana is growing around the 
country, it seems unlikely that Wisconsin's Republican-controlled 
government will join it any time soon.

In Dane County, Parisi is spearheading an effort to decriminalize 
possession at the local level. It's part of a county effort to 
consider how "policies have disproportionate impacts on people living 
in poverty."

Two years ago, Parisi's office looked at the fines across the county 
and found that they varied widely, from a couple of hundred dollars 
to more than $1,000. Fitchburg's fine was almost $1,300 including court costs.

So Parisi asked the county board to reduce the fine in the county 
ordinance. The board agreed, lowering it to $1 plus court costs 
(about $115) for any amount under 25 grams. But since county 
ordinances only affect unincorporated areas, getting the 
municipalities to lower fines will have a much bigger impact.

In a March 20, 2015 letter to the county's municipalities, Parisi 
asked them to follow the county's lead and lower penalties for all 
nonviolent crimes, adopt "ban the box" ordinances (removing 
conviction record questions from job applications) and monitor law 
enforcement traffic stop data.

Fitchburg was the first municipality to revise its marijuana 
ordinances at Parisi's request. Last September, it set fines at $1 
(with an another $62 for court fees) for people 21 and older and $200 
($313 with court fees) for those under 21.

"I think it is the right thing to do, and I hope the other 
jurisdictions follow the county's lead and our lead," says Fitchburg 
Mayor Steve Arnold. "You've got this disproportionate incarceration 
rate for people of color, even though the rate of drug usage is the 
same among different races."

"Marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug right up there with hard opiates," 
Arnold adds. "Everybody knows it's not the same."

Lowering the fine makes sense given that some states have already 
legalized the drug, Arnold adds, saying, "The strategy is to not 
treat this as such a serious offense and let the police work on 
violent crimes and traffic safety."

The decrease in the fines will not have a significant impact on the 
city's finances, Arnold says. "We are not looking for the police 
department to write tickets to balance the city's budget."

The reason the fine had been so high was because of a first offenders 
program pioneered by Municipal Judge Hamdy Ezalarab, Arnold says. 
Ezalarab used the large fine to motivate first offenders to 
participate in his program, which could reduce the fine. Arnold says 
the decrease has not lowered enrollment in the judge's program. It 
kept the marijuana fine for minors at $200 as a concession to 
Ezalarab, Arnold says.

On April 5, Middleton also lowered its fines for possession to $100 
for a first offense, $200 for a second, $300 for a third and $500 for 
a fourth and subsequent offense.

Monona debated changing its fines but its Public Safety Commission 
voted 5 to 4 in February to stick with the current amounts ($200 or 
$313 with court costs for a first offense), says Monona Police Chief 
Walter Ostrenga. Some wanted to see the fines increased, to be more 
of a deterrent, he says.

The city issued 77 citations for marijuana in 2015, collecting 
$24,101 in fines, according to the commission minutes. If the fine 
had been $1, the amount would have been $77. Ostrenga says that while 
the commission discussed this fiscal impact, he adds, "I don't think 
the money part of it played into the decision at all. They just felt 
strongly that they wanted a deterrent."

Ostrenga says it's rare for his department to cite people for just 
possession of a small amount of marijuana. "Most of our arrests 
happen on traffic stops or if someone is arrested in connection with 
another crime," he says. "It is highly unusual to cite someone for a 
small amount of marijuana in their personal residence unless it is 
related to something larger, like manufacturing and sale of drugs."

The city of Madison has long had relatively liberal laws regarding 
marijuana. In the 1970s, the Common Council changed its ordinances to 
read: "A person may casually possess marijuana or cannabis in a 
private place. Such casual possession is not a crime and is not 
subject to forfeiture."

Outside a private place, the fine for less than 25 grams is $50, but 
with court costs that climbs to $124.

Madison Ald. Mike Verveer says that the Common Council has also 
passed resolutions urging the Legislature to decriminalize marijuana. 
He says he would like to reduce the fines more.

"Going back decades, our community has said marijuana is no big 
deal," Verveer says. "Generally, I think the police department has 
received that message."

Gary Storck, a NORML consultant who blogs at, says 
that local residents clearly favor legalization. More than two years 
ago, Dane County voters backed an advisory referendum to legalize 
marijuana for recreational use by 64.5% of the vote.

Storck agrees that Madison was a pioneer, but says the city can do 
more now. "For so many years it stood as a shining example," he says. 
"Now that [the ordinance] is 40 years old, it needs to be updated."

When he was in the Legislature, Parisi had co-sponsored legislation 
to decriminalize medical marijuana. While he's pushed to 
decriminalize recreational use of the drug, he doesn't take a stance 
on full legalization. "In terms of recreational use, I think 
Wisconsin policymakers should review impacts on public safety and 
public health in places where it's already been legalized to inform 
future decisions on that in our state."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom