By Brandi Makuski
City officials this week gave final approval to lowering a fine for first-time possession of small amounts of marijuana.
The Common Council on Monday voted 7-4 to reduce the ordinance penalty from $300 to $100 dollars, which is also the equivalent of an underage drinking fine.
But the change did not come without objection. Stevens Point resident Pete Shuda said he’s worried the ordinance change would encourage hard drug use, citing instances of criminal drug activity at homes in his neighborhood.
“If the city approves this I make a motion the city change its motto from ‘Gateway to the Pineries’ to ‘Gateway to hard drugs’,” Shuda said.
But Shuda’s concerns were, at least publicly, in the minority. Stevens Point resident Ben Kollock, a recent leukemia survivor, said there’s no evidence lowering the fine could increase hard drug use, and also pointed to studies released by the Centers for Disease Control which show no deaths attributed to marijuana use.
“But according to the CDC, 480,000 die each year from tobacco use, and its readily available in Stevens Point,” he said. “That substance kills hundreds of thousands every year, but there are zero recorded deaths from marijuana use. Why isn’t the argument to make tobacco illegal?”
Kollock also said Dane County recently lowered its fine for 25 grams or less of marijuana to only $10.
“Have you heard of Dane County becoming a mecca for hard drug use?” Kollock asked the Council.
Council members were also divided on the issue, but for larger reasons. Alderman Shaun Morrow, who works in the Dept. of Probation and Parole, said lowering the forfeiture doesn’t underline the seriousness of the crime to first-time offenders.
“If you get caught with a roach (the remains of a marijuana cigarette) once, you get a fine. If you get caught again, it’s a felony and it goes on your record for life,” he said. “Lowering the fine, at this point, would take away any kind of deterrent.”
Alderwoman Mary Kneebone was in favor of the fine reduction.
“I think some of the biggest purveyors of illegal drugs in our community are Walgreen’s and the Copps Pharmacy with kids abusing prescription pain killers and muscle relaxers and things like that,” Kneebone said. “I think education goes a whole lot farther than punitive fines that are, I think, not in line with the offense.”
Council President Mike Phillips said he wanted the city to wait until after state representatives decide on pending legislation regarding marijuana possession, which he said could override any city ordinance.
The measure passed, with Council members Shaun Morrow, Mike Phillips, Tony Patton and Jeremy Slowinski all voting in the minority against the change.