If you’re caught with pot and the district attorney doesn’t think prosecuting you is worth the time and effort, some GOP lawmakers don't want you to think you're off the hook.
State Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt and Sen. Rick Gudex, both Fond du Lac Republicans, have introduced legislation that would empower local and county governments to pursue marijuana possession cases that have been dropped by prosecutors.
Because of dwindling resources, many DAs have quit prosecuting simple possession cases of less than 25 grams. Former DA Brian Blanchard established that policy in Dane County in 2007.
In a May 21 letter seeking support from fellow lawmakers, Gudex said he hopes to remedy a situation in which first offenses, typically charged on the municipal level, carry more of a penalty than the second offense, which is the jurisdiction of the state.
"The person did not learn his lesson the first time, so stronger measures are called for," he wrote.
Gary Storck, co-founder of the Madison chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and IMMLY (Is My Medicine Legal Yet?), has a different take.
"Our analysis of it is that the Legislature feels that people in Wisconsin aren’t being punished enough for cannibis," says Storck, who uses marijuana medicinally for a variety of ills.
Thiesfeldt's bill passed through the Assembly Committee on Urban and Local Affairs on Tuesday. Gudex's bill has yet to get a hearing.
Storck says Wisconsin is bucking a national trend that has seen 18 states adopt medical marijuana laws, two states legalize recreational use, and poll numbers that show growing support for legalization.
"It seems to me they’re going the complete opposite direction of much of rest of the country, not to mention public opinion, because of the bubble they live in," he says.
Stork notes that economically challenged people are typically the recipients of marijuana possession fines, and a new report from the ACLU says that in Wisconsin, blacks are six times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana possession.
"The kind of people who usually get caught are poor or minority, and they don’t have the funds to pay these fines," he says.
The fines range wildly. For instance, in Madison a person with 25 grams or less of marijuana faces a $114 fine, while in nearby Fitchburg you get nicked for $1,300.
At a public hearing on the Assembly bill in May, Gudex provided several examples of second-offense charges, currently pending, that might be dropped by a busy DA. They include one alleged offender who was arrested with six ounces, and 19 others ranging in possession amounts from seven grams to "stems."
"Some people are upset because some people apparently are getting away with possessing stems and trace amounts of cannibis," says Storck.