Wisconsin poised to increase marijuana prosecutions

Wisconsin Senators Richard Gudex (R-Fond du Lac) and Joseph Leibham (R-Sheboygan) are pushing to allow local and county governments to prosecute more synthetic and natural marijuana offenses. The legislation progressing in both the Senate and the Assembly would allow local or county municipalities to prosecute marijuana offenses, if the district attorney chose not to prosecute.

Under current Wisconsin law, local governments only have jurisdiction to pass ordinances allowing municipal courts to handle certain marijuana offenses. A local prosecutor handles first-time marijuana offenses and those for the possession of less than 25 grams of marijuana. The district attorney takes over when an individual has prior marijuana-related convictions or possesses a larger amount of marijuana.

Why is a change in law necessary?

The senators have expressed concerns that district attorney offices may choose not to prosecute some marijuana cases, because they do not have adequate funding or staff.

They argue that prosecuting more marijuana offenses could provide another revenue stream for counties. Municipal courts frequently impose fines rather than jail as punishment. A fiscal estimate prepared by the Wisconsin Department of Administration found that counties could possibly recoup enforcement costs by imposing fines.

Senator Lena Taylor from Milwaukee is opposed to the change, because often when a person living in poverty cannot pay a fine it leads to jail time. Recent studies have also shown that the enforcement of marijuana laws in Wisconsin disproportionately affects those of color and those already living in poverty. Time spent in jail can make it impossible to find work creating a vicious cycle.

Where you are charged may affect the possible penalties

First-time possession of marijuana in Wisconsin is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine or $1,000. Subsequent offenses are felonies with much more serious penalties. Forfeiture of a vehicle is also possible in these types of cases.

The proposal could lead to even greater differences in the prosecution of marijuana offenses across the state. For example, marijuana possession is treated more leniently in Madison where an ordinance allows a person to possess up to 28 grams of marijuana in a private place. The ordinance does impose a $114 fine for publicly possessing marijuana.

Gary Storck, co-founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws worries harsher ordinances in some parts of that state would result in stiffer fines in some municipalities.

There could be more marijuana prosecutions, if municipalities receive broader jurisdiction to prosecute cases. If charged with a marijuana offense, contact a marijuana defense attorney to discuss the individual facts of your case and ensure that your constitutional rights are protected.