Author: Dan Simmons, La Crosse Tribune
NEW COUNTY MARIJUANA ORDINANCE RAISES ENFORCEMENT QUESTIONS
The La Crosse County Board last week passed a marijuana ordinance that would allow some low-risk, first-time offenders to be issued a citation and fine instead of facing criminal charges for possession of 25 grams or less of the drug.
The new ordinance raised many questions. Here are some answers:
Q. How many people are cited for first-time minor marijuana possession in La Crosse County courts each year?
A. 348 in 2005 and 307 in 2004, said Scott Horne, La Crosse County District Attorney.
Q. What's the current approach for dealing with them?
A. The person makes an initial court appearance and is offered the chance to have charges suspended then dropped after a court-ordered education and assessment program.
It includes performing 15 hours of community service and attending two two-hour marijuana-education classes at Unity House. If successfully completed, charges are dropped and the offense doesn't go on the person's permanent criminal record. The person pays about $75 for the program, Horne told the county board.
Q. How did this new county ordinance originate?
A. The ordinance was passed through the board's Judiciary and Law committee at the request of the local judiciary led by La Crosse County Circuit Judge John Perlich, who presides over Drug Court.
A change in state law broadened the scope of the ordinance. Previously, the law allowed counties to pass marijuana ordinances that were enforceable only by county sheriff's deputies. However, an amendment to that law passed
Jan. 20 enabled county marijuana ordinances to apply in every municipality within the county.
Q. How will it be used?
A. Police officers in every municipality, in addition to La Crosse County sheriff's deputies, will have the option of charging a first-time offender with an ordinance violation or a criminal misdemeanor. Officers are expected to use discretion based on previous record, age and circumstances of the offense. "( The ordinance ) doesn't take away powers to charge, just gives an additional sanction," said Supervisor Vicki Burke, chairwoman of the Judiciary and Law committee.
However, the county cannot force municipalities to use the ordinance instead of charging people under state law. They have it as an option if they choose to use it. Both Horne and Sheriff Mike Weissenberger opposed the ordinance.
Q. Will minors be treated differently?
A. Yes. In the county, minors
( under 17 years old ) will have their parents notified, although each municipality has the authority to treat minors differently.
Q. What will the fine be in La Crosse county?
A. $249, including processing and other costs, said Bill Shepherd, corporation counsel for the county.
In Onalaska, Wis., which has had a similar ordinance for more than 20 years, ordinance violators face a $424 fine. If they agree to undergo a drug assessment through the Coulee Council on Alcohol and Other Chemical Abuse, the fine is reduced to $235.
Q. How much is 25 grams of marijuana worth on the street?
A. About $450, according to Horne.
Q. Will ordinance citations go on a person's record?
A. Yes and no. It will be accessible by law enforcement in local records and will be listed on the state's CCAP Web site, but not on a person's permanent criminal record, which can affect eligibility for insurance and student loans.
Q. Which supervisors voted for and against the ordinance?
A. The 15 for: Sharon Hampson, Margaret Wood, Jill Billings, Leon Pfaff, Keith Belzer, Maureen Freedland, Tom Rauk, Jason Gillett, Robert Keil, Donald F. Meyer, Tara Johnson, Vicki Burke, Steve Doyle, Joe Bilskemper and Brad Pfaff.
The 12 against: Ralph Geary, Jr., Gerald Sebranek, Jacie Gamroth, Patrick Schippers, Ray Ebert, James Ehrsam, Bernie Maney, Jim Berns, George Hammes, Charles Spiker, Ann Fisher and J. Terry Hanson.
One abstained: John Medinger.
Seven were excused ( absent ): Andrea Richmond, Jai Johnson, Roger Plesha, Lyell Montgomery, Donald Bina, Brian Kapanke and Jeff Schroeder.