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As the debate over marijuana possession continues in the City of Racine, we think city officials might benefit from examining how their counterparts in Eau Claire have handled the matter.

Eau Claire, with a population of 70,000, is smaller than Racine but comparable. Like Racine, it also sits about 90 miles from a major metropolitan area, Minneapolis-St. Paul.

The City of Eau Claire passed a measure in November that fines citizens just $1, plus court fees, for first-offense marijuana possession of 25 grams or less, the Journal Times reported Jan. 14. 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 pot 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 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.”

Eau Claire Police Chief Gerald 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 stands by that point of view.

“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.

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.”

There’s a middle ground in Eau Claire’s actions, one that enables that city’s legislative body to exercise its right to determine municipal fines while still enabling trained police officers to use their discretion to make arrests and charging recommendations at the scene of an incident.

We think Racine should give serious consideration to following Eau Claire’s example.

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