EAU CLAIRE — City of Racine aldermen are not the only Wisconsin officials working to change marijuana laws at the local level.
The City of Eau Claire, with a population of nearly 70,000, slightly smaller than Racine, passed a measure in November that fines citizens just $1, plus court fees, for first-offense marijuana possession of 25 grams or less. The measure was passed by the City Council by a vote of 8-2 and was implemented on Dec. 3.
Previous laws charged offenders up to $500 for a first-time offense with court fees included — that total will now change to $138.
This came after a November referendum found that 54 percent of voters in Eau Claire County said that marijuana should be legal. Only 15 percent of voters said that marijuana should remain illegal across the state. In Racine County, 59 percent of voters said marijuana use should be legalized for adults, while 81 percent said sales should be taxed if it was legalized.
The Eau Claire ordinance, however, is different than the marijuana directive that the Racine City Council approved in December and about which both Racine Police Chief Art Howell and Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling have voiced opposition. In addition to voting to change marijuana fines to an amount between $1 and $75, the Racine City Council voted to order the city’s police chief to direct officers to issue citations for first-time marijuana possession, rather than criminal charges, in cases involving under 25 grams.
The Eau Claire ordinance changed the fine amount, but did not require the police chief to issue citations, rather than recommend criminal charges.
Eau Claire City Council President Andrew Werthmann helped pass the amendment to the ordinance. He said that the November advisory referendum was a huge motivation behind getting this passed at the city level.
“The fact that so many people are ending up with arrests — and even a felony — the punishment is far above the actual crime,” said Werthmann. “It’s a matter of priority. Just like the speed limit, while it’s illegal to drive one mile over the speed limit, officers use discretion and usually don’t pull people over and ticket them for such a minor infraction.”
City Council member Emily Berge also said that she received community feedback prior to the vote — the large majority being in favor of lowering the fine. She said she heard from citizens who wanted the police to focus their efforts on “harder” drugs as compared to marijuana.
“Eau Claire residents knew that as a city we cannot legalize marijuana,” said Berge, “but if council voted to lower the fine to $1, it would be a step in the direction of decriminalizing marijuana statewide as well as sending a strong message to the state.”
City Council member Terry Weld, one of the two no votes on the measure, said he did not support the amendment because marijuana is still illegal across the state. He mentioned that other states that have legalized recreational or medical marijuana have regulated its use.
“When someone buys it here in Wisconsin, they buy it from a drug dealer that isn’t monitored or licensed,” he said. “Why not wait until it becomes legal?”
On the books
Before the law was enacted, Eau Claire Police Chief Gerald Staniszewski said, that in 2002, the department decriminalized possession of personal use amounts of marijuana. He said that this allowed police officers discretion when it came to issuing “non-criminal” citations for first time offenders in possession of less than an ounce of marijuana.
Staniszewski said he talked to Werthmann before the measure was enacted, saying that if the measure would pass it would “have no impact on police operations.” Staniszewski is still standing behind his initial view of the measure nearly two months later.
“The reality is that possession is still illegal,” he said. “They can change the dollar amount, but it doesn’t change the fact they (offenders) may be committing a felony.”
From Dec. 2 (the day before the measure was enacted) to Jan. 7, the Eau Claire Police Department issued seven city ordinance citations for marijuana possession, six citations fewer than over the same time period one year before. The department also made 31 criminal arrests for possession during that period — eight more than the year before.
Eau Claire Police released information that said they took law enforcement action for marijuana incidents against 448 individuals during a 12-month period from 2017 to 2018. Of those incidents, 307 were misdemeanor arrests, while 126 were city ordinance citations — the citation that the new amendment now impacts.
In a letter to the City Council, Staniszewski said “I cannot give direction to our police officers to ignore behavior which is a violation of local, state, or federal law.” He later said, “We do not issue tickets for the purpose of generating revenue. The officer’s decision to issue a citation is not based on whether it makes fiscal sense.”
Council Member David Strobel, the other no vote on the measure, said he didn’t vote for the measure because he felt it would discourage individuals from taking part in the county’s drug court diversion program. The program wipes the offense from an individual’s record after they pay a fee and complete the program.
“It’s a matter of priority. Just like the speed limit, while it’s illegal to drive one mile over the speed limit, officers use discretion and usually don’t pull people over and ticket them for such a minor infraction.” Andrew Werthmann, Eau Claire City Council president