New La Crosse ordinance means a smaller fine for more marijuana, but police say you could still pay the price

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT)– You could now have more marijuana and pay less for it if you’re caught by law enforcement in La Crosse. The Common Council passed an ordinance Thursday night that changes a possession ordinance and lowers the fine to just one dollar.

Under the ordinance, the police department could cite someone with 25 grams or less of marijuana. The person would be fined just $1.

Marijuana Ordinance

La Crosse Common Council members in favor of the ordinance supported a small amount for medical or recreational use. Roger Christians sponsored the change.

“It makes no sense. We’re putting our citizens in jail for no good reason, fining them for no good reason,” said Phillip Ostrem, the council member representing district nin.

But Assistant Police Chief Rob Abraham said it would send the wrong message to residents.

“There is no legal marijuana in the state of Wisconsin. There is no legal marijuana in the city of La Crosse,” said Abraham, during the meeting. The La Crosse Police Department declined to comment further beyond what was said in the meeting.

There still is a criminal law prohibiting having pot, but it’s up to the officer to pursue either the local ordinance or criminal charges. But a criminal charge carries a much steeper price.

“Criminally the fine itself goes up to $1,000 and 6 months in jail. The judge can also suspend a person’s driver’s license,” said Chris Zachar, a criminal defense attorney in La Crosse.

Zachar said this gives the police the chance to issue a simple ticket.

“Rather than going through the process of arresting, booking, maintaining a chain of custody on the evidence and ultimately prosecuting the person,” Zachar said.

And he said it would let officers focus on more pressing issues, like violent crime or emergencies. But not all are seeing the potential positives.

“Do not be surprised if not a single officer writes a single municipal order,” Abraham said.

The assistant police chief went on to say the political move could backfire, therefore sending more people to court.

“So please when you’re making your vote, understand that,” Abraham said.

Council Member Gary Padesky said he found it offensive that the police would suggest they’d go around this. But, Zachar says while police may have the discretion, so does the court system.

“Ultimately it will be up to prosecutor whether to decide or not if they want to bring criminal charges,” Zachar said.

Despite the warning from police, the ordinance passed 9 to 3.

The majority of La Crosse County voters would like to see marijuana legalized in Wisconsin. 63 percent of voters are in favor of legalizing, regulating and taxing recreational pot for adults who are over 21, according to a 2018 referendum.