In a split decision, the La Crosse common council voted last night to decriminalize the possession of marijuana under a certain amount for first time offenders. The City of Eau Claire says it already has a similar ordinance on the books.
Amounts less than 25 grams would be considered municipal violation under the city ordinance in La Crosse, which is the same amount in Eau Claire. Fines and tickets would be similar to fines for shoplifting or speeding.
Eau Claire County District Attorney Rich White says for the past eight years, not having to criminal prosecute first time possession offenders of small amounts of marijuana has helped shrink the case load in his office.
"My Assistant District Attorneys and I can spend time on more serious matters," says White.
White says he feels fines stop otherwise law-abiding people from having the illegal drugs.
"Most of these show they're just bad judgment decisions, and it’s rather reasonable and probable to believe that it won’t happen again," says White.
However White says the fines are unfair. In Eau Claire, the municipal ordinance violation fine for first offense possession of THC less than 25 grams for someone with no prior record is $501.
But, White says the fines handed down by judges in criminal cases for misdemeanor possession of the same amount is generally much lower, at roughly $267.
"It really should be consistent with what we do in most criminal cases,” says White.
City Council President Kerry Kincaid says she wasn't aware of the difference in fines, and the council hasn't taken a look yet at changing them.
"We have to ask the question of what is the effectiveness of a $500 fine. Does it keep people out of the system?" says Kincaid.
White says the ordinances banning small amounts of marijuana are fairly common across the state, and he feels they're necessary as budgets for the justice system become tighter.
Onalaska and La Crosse County already have similar ordinances in place.