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City mulls marijuana possession ordinance

City Councillor Craig Sutherland, who represents the city's 8th District, opened a discussion during the Public Safety Committee meeting Wednesday about decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana in Superior.

His proposal would create a city ordinance that would apply to people found with small quantities of marijuana. It would still be illegal to possess marijuana, but these people could be charged with an ordinance violation instead of a misdemeanor or felony.

It would put the offense on par with a traffic ticket or underage drinking charge. Instead of facing a criminal conviction that could impact their future education, job options and even housing, they would pay a fine.

"It stops someone, if they slip up one time, from being in the criminal system," Sutherland said.

Unless a city has an ordinance covering marijuana possession, police have to arrest people with any amount of marijuana under state statute, according to Superior Police Chief Alexander. The new ordinance would give officers another option when someone is caught in possession of small amounts.

The chief said he supported drafting the ordinance, stressing that it is not legalization of marijuana.

"There is still a level of accountability to breaking the law, but it's just done at a lower level to give people the opportunity to make better decisions moving forward," he said.

Sutherland said nine of the state's 10 largest cities have similar ordinances, including Eau Claire, Stevens Point and Milwaukee. Madison has had theirs since 1975.

He distributed a copy of Eau Claire's ordinance, which makes a person's first possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana an ordinance violation, punishable by a fine of up to $500. If someone fails to pay, they would spend up to 30 days in jail. On a second offense, the ordinance would not apply.

While Eau Claire's ordinance can serve as a template, Alexander said he, District Attorney Mark Fruehauf and City Attorney Frog Prell would want to create a draft that better fits Superior.

"We need to work it to meet our community," he said.

Douglas County has had a similar ordinance on the books since 2008. It states no one can possess 25 grams or less of marijuana and carries a $1,000 fine.

Fruehauf said that if the city does adopt the ordinance, it won't affect his caseload much. The District Attorney already has a policy that if the office gets a referral for possession of a small amount of marijuana without any aggravating factors or a bad criminal record, he will not pursue criminal charges and issue a county ordinance citation instead.

He supports adding a city ordinance to the mix.

"The criminal statute will still exist and I'll always have the discretion to issue a criminal charge if I think it's appropriate," Fruehauf said, but it gives law enforcement more discretion to issue an ordinance rather than arresting someone.

"It also creates more uniformity between city and county law enforcements and the ordinances they can issue, so that similarly situated people can be treated the same when encountered by law enforcement, no matter where they are in the county when they are found with marijuana," Fruehauf said.

A Superior-focused draft of the ordinance is expected to be presented at the next Public Safety Committee meeting.