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No Prosecution for a Little Marijuana


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People who are busted in Dane County for having less than 25 grams of marijuana - a little less than an ounce of pot, or the equivalent of about 20 to 25 joints - will no longer face criminal prosecution, but they could still pay some hefty fines.

Citing a lack of resources and continuing staff reductions, District Attorney Brian Blanchard has told police chiefs his office will no longer file charges of criminal possession against individuals for having less than 25 grams of marijuana - an amount many law enforcement agencies consider to be for personal use rather than for distribution to others.

Blanchard's office also will not file charges for possession of drug paraphernalia related to marijuana use.

"This is not a radical departure from current practice," Blanchard said, adding that one of the major changes is that a person's criminal history will no longer be considered.

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Municipalities with ordinances prohibiting possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia can still issue citations. In Madison, where possessing up to 28 grams of cannabis in a private place is not a crime, the fine for publicly possessing that amount is $109. In neighboring Fitchburg, the fine is $1,300 for possessing less than 25 grams of marijuana. Both require court appearances for juveniles.

Communities without ordinances can submit cases to the district attorney's office for issuance of a county ordinance violation, which carries a $310 fine for possessiion of less than 25 grams of marijuana, said Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney.

But individuals will no longer risk having a criminal conviction on record for possessing less than 25 grams of marijuana, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum fine of $1,000, plus court costs, and up to six months in jail - though jail time is rare and fines are usually $100-$200, Blanchard said.

Mahoney and Fitchburg Deputy Police Chief Don Bates said they did not expect the change to have much of an impact because citations are usually now issued in such cases.

Criminal charges will still be filed for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, Blanchard said. And criminal charges could be filed for possession of less than 25 grams of marijuana in conjunction with other offenses.

Gary Storck, co-founder of the Madison chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and a medical marijuana activist and patient, welcomed the move saying, "I feel it's overdue."

But Storck criticized linking it to a lack of resources, with the implication that given additional staffing, criminal charges would be filed.

"This community has a history very much intermingled with cannabis, like it or not . . . It's a tradition," Storck said. "I think most people understand a little bit of pot is no big deal."

But Blanchard said marijuana "can be very harmful," particularly to young people who smoke a lot of it.

He said state funding for the district attorney's office has not kept pace with the county's population growth and new laws, and federal grants that had helped offset some of the funding shortage in the past have been reduced. After upcoming retirements, his office will have 29 attorneys - the same number as in 1988, Blanchard said, making it necessary to prioritize what cases will be prosecuted.

"Marijuana possession is one of the least significant cases we get in our office," he said. Cases with victims - such as sexual and physical assaults and thefts - take priority, he said. Among drug enforcement cases, homicides caused by distribution of heroin, crack ******* or methadone are much more serious, Blanchard said.

"I don't think we have a marijuana problem in Dane County," he said. "I think we have a heroin problem. I think we have a crack problem . . . I think we have a much larger alcohol problem than we have a marijuana problem."

Source: Wisconsin State Journal
Copyright: 2007 Wisconsin State Journal
Cpntact: scullen@madison.com
Website: madison.com
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