Dane County supervisors OK’d lowering fines to $1 plus court costs for people caught with smaller amounts of marijuana.

Dane County supervisors OK’d lowering fines to $1 plus court costs for people caught with smaller amounts of pot.

Supervisors said the move will help address racial disparity in the county’s criminal justice system and allow law enforcement and courts to concentrate on opiate drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, that they say are bigger problems.

It follows an effort supported by residents to decriminalize possession of the drug. In a 64 to 35 percent majority, Dane County voters approved an advisory referendum last April that called for the legalization of marijuana. 

The county ordinance approval on April 16 drops the fine to $1 plus court costs (around $114) for possession of less than 25 grams of marijuana. The current ordinance allows a fine up to $1,000 per offense but county officials said violators averaged around $110 for fines, plus court costs, in 2014. 

The county estimates that it will lose $11,000 in revenue with the reduced fines.

Under current Wisconsin law, a first offense of marijuana possession, any amount, carries a misdemeanor charge and a fine up to $1,000 and maximum of six months in jail. A second offense, any amount, carries a felony charge with up to 3.5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

“This gives a choice to the district attorney,” said Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner. “Instead of charging someone with a felony that will impact the rest of their life, their ability to get a job and housing and the ability to support their family; I think that it makes a lot of sense for that reason.”

The county’s move supports Dane County Executive Joe Parisi’s “Access to Opportunity” initiative that tackles disparity in the criminal justice system based partly on American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) June 2013 findings. The report showed that a black person is 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though both groups use marijuana at similar rates. It also showed that law enforcement has shifted greater resources to the prosecution of marijuana because it is an “easier target” when compared with enforcement of opiate drugs.

Josh Wescott, chief of staff for the Dane County Executive’s office, told supervisors the initiative was based on discussions with the DA’s office and local law enforcement. He said the county board’s lowering of the marijuana fine will encourage local municipalities to create uniform fines for possession of the drug.

“The overreaching goal is to encourage and bring our partners on board in embracing the concept in the 25 villages and cities that all have different ordinance and write tickets as high as $1,000 in Fitchburg,” Wescott told supervisors at Thursday’s meeting.

Supervisors, who supported the ordinance, said it would send a signal to other elected officials and law enforcement that marijuana enforcement is not a top priority. 

No supervisors spoke in opposition of the ordinance change at the meeting. Nine residents registered in support of lowering the marijuana possession fines, including several from Wisconsin Norml, a group that is working to reform the state’s marijuana laws. No one registered in opposition at the meeting.

County board supervisor Tim Kiefer, who represents Waunakee and Westport, said he supports his constituents’ views to make marijuana enforcement a lower priority for local law enforcement, even if full legislation is not a decision for county government to make.

“Given the heroin epidemic that is sweeping our county and resulting in many overdose deaths, I think it is clear that heroin is where our focus should be, not marijuana,” Keifer said in a statement after Thursday’s vote.

At the state level, Rep. Melissa Sargent (D-Madison) introduced legislation on April 13 that would legalize the production and sale of marijuana for those 21 and older.

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