Wisconsin to get tougher on marijuana laws


Wisconsin legislators approved a bill Tuesday that gives local municipalities more power to punish marijuana use.

As it stands, municipal courts in Wisconsin have the right to prosecute first-time offenders who are found in possession of less than 25 grams. Anyone arrested more than once goes to the circuit court level.

But with Gov. Scott Walker's signature, those same courts would have the right to punish repeat offenders, so long as the district attorney in that area declines to prosecute.

In other words, Wisconsin is becoming tougher on pot while Minnesota -- and the rest of the country -- appears to be chilling out.

SEE ALSO: Barack Obama disagrees with Sheriff Stanek about the dangers of pot

Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, a Republican from Fond du Lac who's sponsoring the bill, insists that it's about fixing "an odd scenario" in the law. His own municipality, he adds, would be glad to pick up more cases. There were 20 instances between August 2011 and 2013 where the Fond du Lac district attorney declined to prosecute repeat offenders, Thiesfeldt says.

Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt

Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt

Personally, Thiesfeldt subscribes to the gateway theory of pot -- that smoking it leads people to harder drugs.

"We want to be raising good citizens who aren't dabbling in that kind of thing," he says.

Thiesfeldt's opinion of marijuana runs counter to the majority of Americans'. A 2013 Gallup poll indicated that 58 percent were supportive of legalizing the drug outright. That number was only 12 percent in 1969.

"I won't deny that," Thiesfeldt says. "I'm hoping it's something that's going to run its course."

Rep. Evan Goyke, a Democrat from Milwaukee, is skeptical of the argument that this bill is actually about holding people accountable in a system with limited resources to prosecute. He points out that the significant differences between circuit and municipal courts in Wisconsin -- for example, no right to an attorney and no Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizures.

"What's this really about?" Goyke says. "It's about revenue."

Although the neighbor states have roughly the same number of people and similar demographics, Wisconsin authorities reported 16,111 arrests for possession of marijuana in 2011. Minnesota authorities reported less than half that -- 7,453.

The way Goyke sees it, Minnesota has done a better job at weighing the costs of prosecution against the social impact of people's bad behavior. Whereas in Wisconsin, he says, the prevailing ideology is, "We're doing to double down on the theory that we can arrest our way out of people smoking marijuana. And that's not gonna work."

-- Follow Jesse Marx on Twitter @marxjesse or send tips to [email protected]