By Joe Bachman
STEVENS POINT — City officials recommended against a measure that would reduce the fine for first-time marijuana offenders from $100 to $5 at last night’s Public Protection meeting.
Introduced by Alder Mary McComb, the ordinance amendment would lower the forfeiture amount from $100 to $5. ($187 to $67.30 with applicable court costs and fees) McComb cited numerous studies that go against the sentiment that marijuana is a gateway drug. McComb also noted current national laws where marijuana is legal in nine states, decriminalized in 14, and allowed for medical reasons in 30 states.
“I believe that we need to get real about accepting marijuana’s place in our culture, because it is already there,” said McComb. “I offer this ordinance amendment as a very small step in that direction.”
Alder Meleesa Johnson echoed McComb’s sentiment by adding her own similar views on the matter, citing a recent Portage County Life Report whose statistics show that opiod abuse leads to harder drugs much more than any other substance. This, among other factors un-related to any sort of drug abuse.
“I think the evidence that our very own life report shows that the path from trying something to abuse and addiction is a convoluted path.” said Johnson. “I firmly believe that marijuana is not a direct gateway…but the half-hazard distribution of Vicodin and Percocets is.”
However, the issue soon turned away from studies and became that of state law, as according to Chief of Police Marty Skibba, a $5 fine for first-time offenders is not enough of a deterrent to sway potential users away from further use and an eventual felony charge.
“Part of an ordinance; and part of the fear of buying is to be a deterrent for particular behavior,” said Skibba. “…this (fine reduction) is not a deterrent, and in the state of Wisconsin a second offense is a felony — and if we reduce the fee so that it is no longer a deterrent, we will have more people being arrested and convicted for felonies.”
Alder Shaun Morrow concurred with Skibba in the sense that going from a first-time offense of $5 to a felony is the true issue at hand.
“I see kids who think that it’s an ordinance problem, and they don’t realize it until they’re arrested a second time, and they’re in my office for a felony charge,” said Morrow. “The ones that I’ve talked with can’t believe that they’re actually being charged with a felony that will be on their record for the rest of their life.”
However, Johnson and McComb stood firm in their argument that whether it’s $5 or $100 doesn’t matter, and will fail to deter behavior, regardless of the amount. According to court records, approximately 44 individuals faced the specific fine this year.
Mayor Wiza chimed in with his thoughts at the end, recognizing the importance for further discussion and both sides on the matter, and hopeful changes in state law that the city can do nothing about.
“Everybody needs to have their concerns addressed in one shape or form — the argument that five dollars or one-hundred dollars isn’t a deterrent — I disagree with that; I think one-hundred dollars is going to be more of a deterrent than five dollars,” said Wiza. “…there’s nothing we can do about that second offense right now as a city council. That second offense is a felony. I think the state needs to address this and I think they should do it really soon.”
Further discussion on the matter is likely at next week’s council meeting where this amendment will ultimately pass or fail through a council vote.