Council Member Proposes $1 Fine for Marijuana Possession

A member of the La Crosse Common Council is proposing reducing fines for possession of up to 25 grams of marijuana to $1.

The proposal will go before the city’s judiciary and administration committee on Tuesday, June 30, before moving to the common council for a possible vote in July.

The move is being sponsored by council member Roger Christians who represents the city’s 13th district. It would mean possession of 25 grams or less of pot, which is just under one ounce, would only be punishable by a city ticket, rather than as a criminal offense that could result in an arrest. 

In 2011, the council made possession of up to 7 grams of pot a municipal rather than a criminal offense but one that could still come with a fine of between $50 and $1,000 plus court costs. Anyone caught with over 7 grams of pot in La Crosse can face a criminal misdemeanor charge with a $1,000 fine and/or imprisonment of up to six months for a first offense.

Christians’ proposal would significantly increase the amount of pot a person could possess without fear of facing criminal charges, while reducing fines to a nominal $1.

The proposed ordinance is similar to one passed by the Eau Claire City Council in 2018, which also made possession of up to 25 grams of pot a municipal offense punishable by a $1 fine.

Should the La Crosse Council pass the measure, it would send a clear signal that the city is no longer prioritizing enforcement of marijuana laws.

At the state level, Gov. Tony Evers and Lt. Gov Mandela Barnes have been calling for the legislature to decriminalize possession of small amounts of the drug but those plans have run up against Republican opposition.

Christians, speaking to The La Crosse Independent, said one of his reasons for backing the change in La Crosse was to send a message to Republican leaders in Madison who he described as “pathetic.” He also said he had several close friends with chronic illnesses who benefited from using marijuana as pain reliever.

Christians said he’s unsure if the measure will be passed by the council, which likely will vote on the proposal in July. He has discussed the proposal with chief of police Shawn Kudron, who Christians said “is not a big fan of this but I think he understood my reasoning.” If approved, Christians said he imagined police would no longer “waste their time” on marijuana offenses.

Studies have shown that while white and black people smoke marijuana at about the same rate, black people face much higher arrest rates for possession of the drug.

In 2018, voters in La Crosse County voted 63% to 37% in favor of legalizing marijuana in an advisory referendum. A Marquette University poll last April showed 83% of respondents in Wisconsin favored legalizing marijuana for medical uses and 59% backed full legalization.

Eleven states have now fully legalized marijuana, including Michigan and Illinois, and the states along the entire west coast of the U.S.

The reason for Christians picking 25 grams as the amount below which fines would be just $1 is that the state does not allow municipalities to change rules for pot possession of greater than that amount, he said.

By Eric Timmons. Questions? Email lacrosseindependent@gmail.com.

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