Plan For $1 City Marijuana Fines Moves Forward

A plan to decriminalize possession of up to 25 grams of marijuana in the city of La Crosse passed its first test on Tuesday.

The city’s judiciary and administration committee voted 4-2 in favor of the proposal, which would make possession of up to 25 grams of marijuana, or just under one ounce, punishable by a city ticket and a nominal $1 fine.

The plan will now move to the La Crosse Common Council meeting on July 9 and looks like it has the support to pass. 

Three members of the public spoke in favor of the reform at Tuesday’s committee meeting. One of those was a woman who said she was arrested more than 20 years ago in La Crosse for possession of a small amount of marijuana, and had lost her job as a result, spent 90 days in jail and paid $1,800 in fines. She urged the council to vote in favor of the decriminalization plan so that others would not have to suffer as she had.

The sponsor of the marijuana proposal is council member Roger Christians. He does not sit on the judiciary and administration committee but spoke at Tuesday’s meeting. Christians pointed to recent polling that showed majority support for legalizing marijuana in Wisconsin and said the drug could help many people who suffer from chronic pain conditions.

La Crosse police chief Shawn Kudron also spoke briefly at Tuesday’s committee meeting. 

“We still simply look at it as being a violation of the law in Wisconsin,” he said, adding that his department would work on enforcement questions with the district attorney if the ordinance change is passed by the council.

Council president Martin Gaul and council member Andrea Richmond voted against the proposal at Tuesday’s meeting. Both indicated that they support at least the legalization of medical marijuana at the state level, but had questions about Christians’ plan for the city.

“I’d ask for the people in Madison to do their damn job and do what the people want them to do,” Gaul said, a reference to Republican leaders in the state legislature who have refused to take up plans to reform marijuana laws in Wisconsin, despite strong public support for legalization.

Gaul said he opposed Christians’ ordinance change because it would mean decriminalizing demand for marijuana to a significant degree, even as supplying the drug remained illegal.

Christians modeled his proposal on a similar ordinance in Eau Claire that was passed in 2018 that also reduced fines for possession of 25 grams of marijuana to $1. He said a council member in Eau Claire told him the change had resulted in a reduction in crime in that city.

The La Crosse Common Council in 2011 made possession of up to 7 grams of marijuana 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.

At present, anyone caught with over 7 grams of marijuana in La Crosse could 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 more than triple the amount of marijuana that could only be punishable with a city ticket if someone was stopped by police, while also essentially abolishing fines for the offense. He hopes the change would mean police would no longer see marijuana offenses as a priority, if the proposal is passed by the council.

Civil rights activists have long called attention to the fact that black people in U.S. are far more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people. Eleven states have now legalized marijuana for recreational use and 35 states have medicinal marijuana programs.

Christians’ proposal to decriminalize possession of up to 25 grams of marijuana and cut fines to $1 will go before the common council for a vote when the council meets at 6 p.m., Thursday, July 9.

By Eric Timmons. Top photo credit: A discount medical marijuana shop in Denver, Colorado/O’Dea at Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0.

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