Small town Washburn, Wisconsin, may cling to the shores of Lake Superior at the northernmost tip of the state, but it's not clinging to tough marijuana law enforcement. Last week, the Washburn City Council passed an ordinance allowing city police to issue tickets to people caught with small amounts of marijuana instead of arresting and booking them.
That made Washburn only the latest Cheesehead State locality to pass a decrim ordinance -- and that distinction was short-lived. On Monday, the Two Rivers City Council passed an ordinance making possession of less than eight grams of marijuana a municipal offense.
The move to municipal decrim began in the 1970s, when 15 cities, mostly college towns, adopted ordinances, according to veteran Wisconsin marijuana and civil liberties activist Ben Masel. Milwaukee moved to the scheme in the early 1990s. Also in the early 1990s, counties were given similar authority, and Walworth County, home of the Alpine Valley Music Theater, which hosted Grateful Dead tours, notoriously turned a nice profit on $454 marijuana possession citations.
This year, Dane County (Madison) and Eau County prosecutors announced they would charge offenders exclusively under county ordinances rather than state law. But in other locales, that decision is left to local prosecutors. Being prosecuted under local ordinances has the benefit of leaving no criminal conviction and no loss of student aid or other benefits. But there can still be hefty penalties, and, Masel noted, a lower burden of proof for a civil infraction and no right to a jury trial.
It's all good with Washburn Assistant Police Chief Jeremy Clapero, who told a local radio station the ordinance would give police flexibility in dealing with pot users. Under Wisconsin law, simple marijuana possession is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Previously lacking a municipal ordinance, police had to put marijuana possessors in jail.
"They were arrested on the spot and brought to jail -- they were booked into the jail and then they would be at some point released and appear in court on that charge," said Clapero. "Now there's a situation where they can get a ticket with the fine amount and released. It's not on their criminal record at that point."
While Clapero said people could still be arrested under the state law, the ordinance will save police time and resources. "A situation where a person has a small or a very small amount of marijuana in their possession or in their car, this may be used instead of bringing that person to criminal court and having a criminal offense on their record for something would he be issued a city ordinance citation which is a forfeiture offense -- similar to like a speeding ticket."
But don't think this means Washburn police have seen the light regarding the war on drugs. "It's not intended to say that we're not tough on drugs. We're still tough on drugs it's just gives us another avenue. We're behind just what every other agency has done, so we just kind of stepped up and did what they did." Clapero said.