Marijuana is still illegal in Wisconsin, but cities across the state slowly have been relaxing penalties against people caught with small amounts of the drug.
A Gannett Central Wisconsin Media review found that nine of the state’s 10 largest cities have decriminalized simple possession. Madison and Milwaukee were among the first cities in Wisconsin to reform their ordinances on marijuana.
Stevens Point is the most recent municipality in central Wisconsin to adopt and then modify its ordinance. Last month, the city cut the fine for first-time marijuana offenders to $100.
Under state law, a person caught with a small amount of marijuana can be charged with a misdemeanor crime punishable by jail time and a permanent criminal record. Since cities in Wisconsin have begun enforcing lesser penalties, those people now face anything from six months in jail to no jail time or fee.
Some law enforcement officials don’t support decriminalization because they believe marijuana can lead users to harder drugs. But decriminalization advocates think lesser penalties for those caught with marijuana allow them to be treated like other minor offenders.
Madison adopted its ordinance in 1977 and the current version doles out no punishment to a person caught with up to 28 grams of marijuana.
Chief of Police Michael Koval said he’s glad Madison has the ordinance because it allows the police department to focus on hard drugs, like heroin and methamphetamine, instead of recreational marijuana users.
“Unless you are doing something that is creating a disturbance… it’s no major point of emphasis for us to get involved in that situation here in Madison,” Koval said. “Unless your use is leading to some sort of abject behavior that is contrary to law.”
In June, Milwaukee decided to lower its marijuana fine to $50 due to a racial disparity, said City Council member Nik Kovac. About 1,250 of the 1,500 citations issued last year for simple possession were given to African Americans, he said, adding that it’s unacceptable to target minorities in a city with a population that’s roughly half black and half white.
Kovac hopes the reduced fine eventually will prompted officers to stop issuing citations so all recreational marijuana users no longer have to worry about the consequences of a lifelong felony conviction.
“If we never issue a first offense,” Kovac said, “it never gets to that second offense.
For the second time, state Rep. Melissa Sargent has introduced a statewide marijuana legalization bill aiming to make communities safer and eliminate racial disparities.
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