Thirty years ago, Madison was at the forefront of the effort to bring the nation's marijuana laws in line with growing public opinion that, among adults, smoking a joint is akin to drinking a beer.
But after three decades, Madison's historic ordinance permitting possession of small amounts of marijuana remains at odds with state and federal laws, putting city police in a difficult position.
And Madison advocates are still pushing for Wisconsin to join other states that have relaxed their laws against pot.
"Once again, from the bottom up, we're seeing an upswing in activism," said Gary Storck, co-founder of the Madison chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and a medical marijuana activist and patient.
On April 5, 1977, Madison voters passed what is now the nation's second-oldest municipal ordinance still on the books decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana.
The binding referendum -- which made its way onto the ballot after proponents obtained 8,800 signatures -- went beyond an ordinance the City Council adopted just two months earlier by eliminating any penalty for private possession of small amounts of pot.
Minutes after the February law was adopted, "several persons lit up marijuana cigarets in a hallway outside the council chambers," the State Journal wrote at the time.
By the time Madison's referendum passed, five states -- Oregon, Colorado, Alaska, Ohio and California -- had decriminalized pot. Madison's ordinance also followed a similar measure in Ann Arbor, Mich., the oldest municipal decriminalization law still in existence.
"RELAXED ATMOSPHERE"\Madison's ordinance 23.20 allows possession of up to 112 grams of marijuana -- just under four ounces, or about 112 joints -- or up to 28 grams of cannabis resin, or hashish, in a private place.
It prohibits possession in a public place without a prescription or order from a physician or other practitioner, violations of which are subject to a $109 fine. Selling the drug is also still prohibited.
But Madison police Lt. Sandy Theune, commander of the Dane County Drug Task Force, questions whether it would be appropriate for city police to say, "Hey, just feel free" -- even in a private home.
"It's still not 100 percent legal," because of state and federal law, Theune said, but "I think it's pretty well known that there's something of a relaxed atmosphere about marijuana in Madison."
Still, Theune said, police are likely to confiscate marijuana, and, depending on the circumstances, could seek to press charges under state law. "There's not always a black-and-white answer to what will an officer do."
"It depends on who it is ... on both sides," said Ben Masel, a fixture on the marijuana legalization front for decades.
Discretion ultimately rests with the district attorney's office, which determines whether to file charges under state law. In March, District Attorney Brian Blanchard, citing a lack of resources, said his office will no longer file criminal charges against individuals possessing less than 25 grams of marijuana -- just under an ounce, or about 25 joints.
Public use has declined dramatically in Madison in the years since the passage of the city ordinance decriminalizing pot, as federal authorities have continued to crack down on marijuana as part of the "war on drugs," Storck said.
"Back then, Madison was a lot more free about cannabis," he said, adding that it was common to walk into the Memorial Union Rathskeller and find people smoking pot in a corner. "Everybody was doing it."
ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION\But not everybody agreed on its effect.
Despite a national task force report in 1972 that recommended decriminalizing pot for personal use, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration has steadfastly opposed relaxing the law.
Such moves, the DEA said, would hurt children and public safety by creating increased dependency and treatment needs and open the door to the use of other drugs, while increasing health risks, delinquent behavior and impaired driving. It also argues that the potency of marijuana today is much greater than it was in the 1970s.
Advocates such as Storck counter that there was potent pot back then, and he likened responsible marijuana use by adults to using alcohol or tobacco.
Storck is hoping the anniversary of Madison's ordinance will renew debate, as well as support for changing state law.
About 50 people attended a 30th anniversary celebration of the ordinance last week at a Williamson Street cafe.
The commemoration was marked not with raucous chants or demonstrations, but with a PowerPoint presentation on events leading up to passage of the law. A band performed "cannabis tunes," including Bob Dylan's "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35" with the popular refrain "everybody must get stoned" for the laid-back audience, some of whom stepped outside to smoke pot.
Despite federal prohibitions, other states and municipalities have followed Madison. Twelve states have now decriminalized marijuana for personal use, and 12 states -- many of the same ones -- have legalized marijuana for medical use.
"SKY HAS NOT FALLEN"\Madison's experience has played a role in the passage of marijuana reform in other cities and states, he said.
"The sky has not fallen," St. Pierre said. "They are still productive people. The children are born with 10 fingers and 10 toes."
A Zogby poll commissioned by NORML in March found that 49 percent of Americans supported removing criminal penalties for the personal use of marijuana by adults, while 48 percent were opposed.
In Wisconsin, Storck said, "There's some very hopeful things happening."
Last year, then-Rep. Gregg Underheim, R-Oshkosh, introduced a medical marijuana bill after he was diagnosed with cancer, but the bill did not make it out of committee in the Republican-controlled chamber. This year, Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, said he plans to join Rep. Frank Boyle, D-Superior, in introducing similar legislation.
Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, said he plans to hold a hearing on medical marijuana in the Democratic-led Senate this fall.
But Rep. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, who chairs the Assembly Committee on Health and Healthcare Reform, said she will continue her opposition to medical marijuana because of concerns about its safety.
Vukmir, a nurse, said she believes it is better for patients to use medications that have been approved or may soon be available than to have people grow their own marijuana.
"I will refuse to put members through the circus of a hearing for a bill that is not going to go anywhere," Vukmir said. "This is nothing more than a backdoor attempt to legalize marijuana, which is not going to happen on my watch."
POT LAWS COMPARED\Madison ordinance 23.30: Possession of up to 112 grams (just under 4 ounces) of marijuana in a private place is not a crime and is not subject to forfeiture. Possession is prohibited in public without a prescription or order from a physician or other practitioner and is subject to a fine, which is now $109.
Wisconsin: Possession of any amount of marijuana is punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of $1,000 for the first offense, which is a misdemeanor. The state allows conditional release or alternative sentencing, such as drug treatment, for people facing their first prosecution. After successfully completing their sentence, defendants' criminal records may be cleared of the charge. Second and subsequent drug offenses are felonies, punishable by up to 3 1/2 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Upon conviction of a drug offense, the offender's driver's license is suspended for 6 months to 5 years.
Federal: Possession of any amount of marijuana is punishable by up to one year in jail and a minimum fine of $1,000 for a first offense, which is a misdemeanor. For a second offense, also a misdemeanor, penalties increase to a 15-day mandatory minimum sentence with a maximum of two years in prison and a fine of up to $2,500. Subsequent convictions carry a 90-day mandatory minimum sentence and a maximum of up to three years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.