Could Marathon County "decriminalize" marijuana?
County leaders will look at a marijuana ordinance change later this week that does essentially that
UPDATE: In a conversation with Sheriff Scott Parks, the sheriff disputed the characterization of the proposed change equalizing “decriminalization.” Parks says the ordinance change allows possession to be a county offense as opposed to a state violation. He points out as an example using the county ordinance version of a disorderly conduct charge. While similar measures in other counties have been referred to as decriminalization and essentially the idea is to keep people out of the court system for low-level offenses, I’ve modified the original post to reflect the Sheriff’s point. Parks told The Wausonian that the ordinance provides law enforcement another option in its approach to criminal justice.
If a proposed change to Marathon County’s marijuana ordinance seems to have come out the blue, well, that’s because essentially it has.
County leaders will look this week at a proposed change that does two things to how marijuana offenses are treated in the county. One, it will lower the fine to $50 for possession offenses; and two, it will make marijuana offenses a lesser-criminalized offense.
The ordinance change comes from County Board Supervisor Jeff Johnson, who took on Republican Assemblyman Pat Snyder recently as a Democrat in 2020. Johnson, a former probation and parole agent, says that it would have an impact on the county’s jail population, but not necessarily in the way most people think. “I want to dispel the liberal myth that there are all these people in jail/prison for marijuana possession,” Johnson told The Wausonian. Instead, he says, it’s used as a way to put leverage on defendants accused of other crimes, to push for longer sentences.
That leads to more jail/prison time in an era where the Marathon County court system has had record backlogs following COVID-19 shutdowns (when courts weren’t operating, adding to a pretty significant backlog already).
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The ordinance wouldn’t make marijuana legal, and not necessarily cheap, depending on how officers and prosecutors decide to implement it. Officers could still refer offenders for criminal charges if they choose, Johnson says. Prosecutors could still prosecute them.
But this allows them the option to keep it a civil offense. Right now, a second offense marijuana charge of less than 25 grams could cost up to $500 in fines, plus court costs. That also uses prosecutor’s time — time that, according to their own claims of understaffing during budget season is in short supply. Not to mention officer time, jail staff time and bed space.
Under the new ordinance, it would be cheaper. Even if still prosecuted, an offender would pay $50 in fines plus court costs, which according to a chart from the state equals more than $200 (Scroll to page 10). But that’s still a significant reduction.
Johnson told The Wausonian that he brought forward the measure because with marijuana legal to at least some degree in three of Wisconsin’s neighboring states (medical marijuana is legal in Minnesota and recreational marijuana is legal in Michigan and Illinois), it’s likely our state is going that way anyway. With the infrastructure issues and budget done, it seemed like a good time to bring it up, he says.
Milwaukee enacted a similar measure, making possession a $1 civil fine. The Madison City Council essentially legalized residents 18 and over to possess up to 28 grams and consume it at home. The City of Eau Claire made a first time offense of possession of up to 25 grams a $1 fine, similar to Milwaukee County.
The county’s Health and Human Services Committee will join the county’s Public Safety Committee Wednesday to talk about it. Eventually it will go to the county board.
Although Johnson said there was nothing significant in the timing, it might be the best time to try something like this. There are currently, as of this writing, 18 potentially contested board races and there could be up to 21 if the appropriate paperwork is returned, according to the county clerk. That could mean a major shakeup of the county board, with possibly the most contested board races in history. That would bring a lot of unknowns as new members feel each other out politically.
Wednesday will be interesting, to say the least.
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