By Shereen Siewert

A proposal to reduce penalties for marijuana possession in Marathon County drew a mixed reaction from residents and local officials this week, but will now undergo further review at the statewide level.

The proposed ordinance change, discussed at a joint meeting of the county’s Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committees, would make possessing 25 grams or less of marijuana subject to a $50 fine. That represents a reduction from the current fine of $250, but the change would not legalize or decriminalize marijuana use in the county.

Marathon County Supervisor Jeff Johnson brought forward the proposal, which he said was the result of contact with constituents. Johnson said he believed the change could keep people out of the criminal justice system, noting that a second charge of possessing marijuana is a felony in Wisconsin.

“This is widely used by a lot of adults, a lot of adults,” Johnson said.

He also pointed to a bill making its way through the State Legislature that would set a fine of $100 statewide. Now, fines and penalties differ widely from county to county. Milwaukee County, for example, has a $1 fine.

By reducing the fine to $50, Johnson said, the ordinance would treat simple possession more like a parking ticket.

Three speakers used the public comment portion of the meeting to share their thoughts on the ordinance. The list included Erin Crawford, who spoke by phone and said changing the ordinance could harm the community and “simply encourage more marijuana usage and was an example of “more lawlessness in our country.”

Joanne Leonard also spoke out against the idea, saying that marijuana is a gateway drug that could lead to harder drug use and increased instances of mental illness. She was also critical of the agenda posted for the meeting, which she felt did not make clear what the proposal would entail.

“With crime rates spiraling out of control around the country and in Marathon County, why would this body of smart, intelligent people, concerned for the safety of all residents, bring this ordinance forward one more time?” she asked.

A third speaker was visibly emotional when he discussed the proposed change and said that his teenage son became addicted to marijuana, with disastrous results.

Marathon County District Attorney Theresa Wetzsteon

Marathon County District Attorney Theresa Wetzsteon told committee members Wednesday that reviewing the proposal offered her office an opportunity to take a deeper look into the issue in cooperation with the Marathon County Sheriff’s Department. She said the topic has been discussed among staff for years.

Wetzsteon said that unlike some municipalities, possession cases prosecuted in Marathon County are public record, listed on the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access site. Now, first-time offenders are often referred to diversion programs to avoid having an entry on CCAP, she said, which can sometimes be more beneficial to the offender.

As to marijuana being used as a gateway drug, Wetzsteon said the diversion program assesses those issues and individualizes a program for the offender to address problems that might exist.

Between 2020 and 2021, the DA’s office issued seven felony marijuana charges, all of which accompanied additional criminal charges, she said. In 2021, there were 37 referrals for misdemeanor possession of THC. None of those were for first-time offenders, she said.

“There is an ordinance in place,” she said. “The Marathon County Sheriff’s Office and their deputies have the ability to use the ordinance for first-time offenders. And what we’re seeing in the DA’s office is not first-time offenders.”

Marathon County Chief Deputy Chad Billeb said some confusion exists about the proposal.

“I believe there is a perception that this would somehow decriminalize these cases in Marathon County and that just isn’t the case,” he said.

After about 90 minutes of discussion, the group – at Marathon County Board Chair Kurt Gibbs’ suggestion – opted to refer the proposed ordinance to the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council for review. The statewide Council, established in 2012 by then-Gov. Scott Walker, brings together key state and local decision-makers as a collaborative body to assess the criminal justice system and improve system outcomes. The group’s mission is to promote and facilitate the implementation of effective criminal justice policies and practices that maximize justice and the safety of the public.