Storck (at right): "It's making money off of punishing people when it could move forward and be creating all kinds of new jobs by legalizing the plant."
The Wisconsin Senate's Committee on Economic Development and Local Government heard feedback from interest groups and residents Wednesday morning over a bill (SB 150) that would strengthen local and county governments' grounds for prosecuting individuals who possess natural and non-prescribed synthetic marijuana.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Richard Gudex (R-Fond du Lac) and Sen. Joseph Leibham (R-Sheboygan) has a companion bill in the Assembly (AB 164), which made its way through the Committee on Urban and Local Affairs last week.
Currently, local governments in Wisconsin may only pass ordinances that allow municipal courts to prosecute for possession of less than 25 grams of marijuana and first-time offenses. The county's district attorney determines whether to prosecute repeat offenses or possession of more than 25 grams of marijuana.
Gudex says district attorneys may not prosecute these larger violations due to a lack of staff and financial resources.
"This could end up with a person being convicted of possession of 24 grams of marijuana, but then receiving no punishment for possession of 50 grams," he says. "Whatever one may think about our current drug laws, this makes no sense at all."
If passed, the bill gives local and county municipalities the authority to bring charges against individuals who possess any amount of natural or synthetic marijuana or offend on subsequent occasions if district attorneys decide not to prosecute.
Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac) says giving local governments the ability to bring charges will enable them to recoup costs associated with arresting offenders by imposing fines, and may even act as a revenue source. According to a fiscal estimate (PDF) prepared by the Wisconsin Department of Administration, the bill could also reduce the costs to counties because municipal courts, which handle local ordinance violations, are more likely to impose fines as punishment rather than jail time.
Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) disagrees, noting convictions in municipal courts may lead to jail time, particularly when offenders are unable to pay the fines. She notes Wisconsin will spend $2.5 billion in prison construction by the end of the decade due to increased incarceration, particularly of impoverished and African American people. Their incarceration would jeopardize future employment opportunities, Taylor adds.
"You create a cycle," she says. "The choices that we make will have a direct effect on what we spend on corrections and whether or not we fix the problem that we have. If what we do is move in this direction, instead of ... addressing treatment and mental health issues ... then we're only going to exacerbate the problem.
Curt Witynski, assistant director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, which supports the bill, is not convinced municipalities will prosecute for financial motives.
"Usually the court fee that attaches to the forfeiture isn't enough to cover a community's true expenses," he says. "Right now we can collect a maximum of $28 per ticket in the form of municipal court fees. None of that really balances out in the end for covering communities' total costs of police, courts and every other staff and resource that needs to go into that process."
While state law considers marijuana possession a crime, the Dane County District Attorney has not prosecuted for possession of under 25 grams since 2007. In 2010, the Dane County Board of Supervisors amended the county's code of ordinances to ban the sale of synthetic cannabinoids, but the board's current position on marijuana use is lenient toward non-synthetic forms.
In May, Dane County Sup. Kyle Richmond submitted a resolution (PDF) expressing support for a federal bill that would decriminalize marijuana. Ten supervisors cosponsored the resolution.
Witynski doubts the bill will alter penalties for marijuana possession in liberal municipalities such as Madison. Chapter 23 of Madison's Code of Ordinances stipulates that individuals "may casually possess marijuana or cannabis in a private place," provided the amount of marijuana does not exceed 28 grams. Fines for publicly possessing marijuana in Madison are $114.
But in municipalities such as Fond du Lac, harsher local ordinances could lead to stiffer fines, which is a concern to Gary Storck, co-founder of the Madison chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
"It's making money off of punishing people when it could move forward and be creating all kinds of new jobs by legalizing the plant for hemp and medical use, and for social use," Storck says.