Pubdate: Fri, 01 Jul 2016
Source: Wisconsin State Journal (WI)
Copyright: 2016 Madison Newspapers, Inc.
Author: Jeff Glaze
Page: A-2


A marijuana advocacy group has revived an effort to drastically reduce 
penalties for being caught with the drug in Monona.

Members of the Madison chapter of the National Organization for the 
Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) are circulating a petition that 
supports reducing municipal fines for pot possession to $1 in hopes of 
placing a binding referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Since mid-May, the group has gathered signatures to try to force action 
under the state's direct legislation law after a similar ordinance 
change was narrowly defeated by the city's Public Safety Commission 
earlier this year.

Wisconsin's statute allows electors to offer "direct legislation" in the 
form of a petition as a check on local government.

Under the law, local elected officials must either pass the legislation, 
without alteration, within 30 days of the petition's certification, or 
they must place it on the ballot as a referendum in the next general 
election. In order to be certified, a petition must contain enough 
signatures to eclipse 15 percent of the number of votes cast for 
governor during the last general election.

"We can't, like other states, put things on the ballot at the state 
level. You can do direct legislation, though, in cities and towns, so 
this was really the last hope to do it on an incremental basis like 
this," said Gary Storck, a former Madison NORML president.

Storck said the group needs 719 signatures to meet the 15 percent 
threshold, but is aiming for 1,200 to ensure the petition's viability if 
some signatures are thrown out during the verification process.

Possession of marijuana is considered a state and federal crime, but 
municipalities often have marijuana ordinances in place as a third 
deterrent because state and federal authorities generally do not 
prosecute small amounts of the drug unless it is connected to other, 
more significant crimes.

While lowering the fine would not decriminalize possession, Storck said 
it would bring Monona in line with Dane County officials' calls to 
remedy the disproportionate impact marijuana and other low-level 
municipal fines have on low-income residents, and it would provide 
assurance to self-medicating marijuana users.

"It takes some of the fear out of having a small amount of cannabis. For 
patients, knowing that the worst thing that can happen is to get a $1 
fine would provide some relief," Storck said.

Monona's Public Safety Commission in February rejected 5-4 an ordinance 
change that would have reduced fines for possessing 25 grams or less of 
pot from $313 to $1 plus court fees.

Monona Police Chief Walter Ostrenga opposed the change at the time 
because he said it sent the wrong message to children. On Thursday, he 
said he was more concerned with the sources of drugs.

"It is what it is. I'm not screaming, jumping up and down at my desk, 
saying this is a bad thing. I have no control over it," Ostrenga said. 
"The thing is someone has marijuana and they're only getting a $1 fine, 
but where are they buying it? . What groups are profiting from the 
illegal sale of drugs to these people who are only going to get a $1 
fine. That doesn't solve the problem."

State law requires signatures to be collected within 60 days of the date 
the petition was registered.

Storck said the group will ask people to re-sign the petition and extend 
the window if they are unable to gather 800 signatures by July 13.
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