In a world where appearances matter, James, a Wausau native and vice president of a local bank, fits in nicely. He’s widely known in social circles, is a volunteer for several charitable organizations and a recipient of at least one community award. He favors well-cut suits, crisp white shirts and leather loafers. He coached his daughter’s soccer team.
James isn’t his real name: He asked City Pages to withhold that information. That’s because after leaving his office, James goes home and smokes marijuana, almost daily. Going public would mean risking not only his reputation, but also arrest and possible prosecution.
Today’s typical marijuana user no longer matches the hazy, hilarious images of Cheech and Chong, or of the stoned teens in the 1982 cult classic, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Instead, many of today’s users are affluent, well dressed and educated. They have jobs, pay mortgages, go to church on Sundays and, for the most part, follow society’s rules.
“I’m not what you’d think of as a criminal. In fact, I’ve never even had a speeding ticket,” James says. “Most of my friends are doing the same thing: smoking a one-hitter after work, in the privacy of our own homes. Some people like to knock back a scotch or a whiskey to relax after a stressful day. To me, this is no different.”
Except, of course, that he’s breaking the law.
Any amount of marijuana is illegal to possess in Wisconsin. State law does allow local governments to prosecute possession as a municipal ordinance violation for amounts less than 25 grams, or a little less than an ounce. But in Wausau, even first-time possession is potentially a criminal offense, with a maximum fine of $1,000, a possible six-month jail term and a permanent criminal record. A second offense is a felony with a $10,000 maximum fine and up to 3.5 years in prison, regardless of the amount seized.
Wausau follows the state’s rules, but a number of other municipalities treat marijuana differently, slowly decriminalizing marijuana use through local ordinances.
The city of Madison, for example, has long had relatively tolerant laws regarding the drug. The fine for less than 25 grams is $50, with no punishment for people consuming the drug in the privacy of their own home.
In April, neighboring Middleton lowered its fines for possession to $100 for a first offense, $200 for a second. And Stevens Point officials in 2014 adopted rules that allow police to issue municipal citations—rather than a criminal charge—to those caught with up to five grams of marijuana, the equivalent of a few joints. Just this April the fine was reduced from $300 to $100, a move supporters say makes the punishment fit the crime.
From a financial standpoint, enforcement and prosecution is expensive. Last year, Wisconsin law enforcement agencies reported more than 17,000 arrests for marijuana possession. Of those, 207 were in Marathon County. An arrest carries an estimated cost of $439 in law enforcement resources, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Jail costs another $144 per day, according to Dept. of Corrections figures. And court costs add another $167 to the tab.
Then there’s the human element to consider, one that carries an even heavier price tag. People arrested for marijuana possession often must miss work to appear in court or attend drug testing. Some lose their jobs. Some lose their license to drive. Even misdemeanor convictions make it difficult to find jobs and can keep students from receiving Pell grants or even student loans to further their education.
“I guess my issue with this is that Wausau is dealing with a huge heroin and meth problem,” James says. “Dope isn’t killing anyone. Wouldn’t Wausau police be better off using those resources to fight the real problems here?”
Police, however, say it’s just not that simple.
From a cost standpoint, “It would be difficult to separate those resources, because often when we make a marijuana arrest, it’s combined with something else, part of a traffic stop or another type of arrest,” says Wausau Police Capt. Ben Bliven. “It’s an interesting question, and one worth asking. But I don’t know how we could possibly say with any certainty that we would save any money by just writing a ticket.”
The legalization debate
Whether smoked, eaten or inhaled, marijuana is the most commonly used illegal drug in the country, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Using marijuana is on the upswing, from 14.5 million users in 2007 to 19.8 million users in 2014.
But this is not your father’s pot, says Melissa Dotter, the Marathon County Drug Free Communities program coordinator. Today’s marijuana found in states where the drug has been legalized contain about 30% THC, the ingredient that causes the “high.” Ten years ago, that level was about 6–7%, Dotter says.
Data also shows that more than half of new illicit drug users begin with marijuana.
“I firmly believe that marijuana is truly a gateway drug,” says Wausau Police Capt. Matt Barnes. “Over the years, in arrests involving heroin or meth, we ask how their addiction started. Marijuana is pretty much always a factor. That, and alcohol.”
Wausau Police Capt. Matt Barnes
Still, the nation’s police overwhelmingly do not see marijuana as a major threat to their communities, according to the 2015 National Threat Assessment Summary from the Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA asked representatives of more than 1,000 law enforcement agencies what they saw as their biggest drug threats. Marijuana came in at the bottom, named by just 6% of survey respondents.
By contrast, nearly three quarters of police departments named heroin and meth as their top threats. And the perceived threat of heroin has more than quadrupled since 2007, according to the survey.
Barnes says marijuana is certainly considered less dangerous and less problematic than heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and other opiates. And domestic situations are nearly always more dangerous for responding police when alcohol is involved, rather than marijuana. But marijuana is still illegal, Barnes says, and locally, city leaders have repeatedly made clear they want a “drug-free community.”
“I know I don’t want my kids using it,” Barnes says. “And I think decriminalizing it sends the wrong message to the community. Is that really what we want?”
If other states are an indication, Wisconsin could bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenue by legalizing marijuana. A study released in April by the Marijuana Business Daily reveals that legal marijuana sales skyrocketed from $4.6 billion in 2014 to an estimated $7 billion in 2016. A 2015 study by the Tax Foundation projects that legalizing and taxing marijuana in Wisconsin could eventually generate up to $28 billion in tax revenue each year from users, growers and business owners who market the drug.
To date, 24 states now permit medical marijuana or have decriminalized marijuana possession. Of those, four states plus the District of Columbia have legalized the sale of marijuana for recreational use. Four more states will hold voter referendums on the issue this fall.
Nationwide, the anti-marijuana movement has gradually eroded as well. In Wisconsin, polls beginning in 2011 consistently show a majority of Wisconsin adults now support legalization.
Legal, regulated marijuana sales began in 2014 in Colorado, after voters approved Amendment 64 by a 55% to 45% margin. A separate 2013 proposition establishing marijuana taxes had even greater support, passing 65% to 35%.
Colorado does tax marijuana heavily: excise, sales, state and local levies on marijuana sales add up to about a 29% tax. Advocates say that revenue to the state and localities has now greatly exceeded original estimates, though early collections were lower than expected. Marijuana revenues of $56 million in 2014 grew to $113 million in 2015 and are on track to exceed $140 million in 2016, and that doesn’t even count additional tax revenue from growers and business owners.
In the state of Washington, after a slow start to bring the licensing system online, sales are now averaging over $2 million a day with tax revenue possibly reaching $270 million per year, according to state budget figures. If all states legalized and taxed marijuana, the Tax Foundation estimates, states could collectively raise as much as $18 billion per year.
But all those tax dollars carry a hefty price tag, says Marathon County Sheriff’s Lt. Randy Albert, who spearheads the special investigations unit.
Certainly, along with the revenue, the law in Colorado has brought a wave of unintended consequences. Law enforcement challenges, such as marijuana-impaired driving and the illegal movement of product into other states are just the tip of the iceberg, Albert says.
“Colorado is having a huge problem with homeless people, people who have moved there because of the change in the law,” Albert says.
Other problems of Colorado’s pro-pot culture include a spike in marijuana-related emergency room visits, usually in the form of consumption by children and pets. There’s an increased use among teens, resulting in potential educational problems in schools, according to a 2015 report from the Colorado Dept. of Public Safety.
“Drug-impaired crashes are up. Overall use is up. It isn’t all rosy,” Albert says.
A matter of time?
Lt. Albert says he believes marijuana will be legal in all states within the next five to 10 years, despite his apprehension personally as well as from a law enforcement perspective.
In July, the national Democratic Party endorsed a “reasoned pathway to future legalization” of marijuana and called for the drug to be downgraded to Schedule II in the Controlled Substances Act, a move also being considered by the Drug Enforcement Administration. Currently, the DEA classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, putting it in the same category as heroin and LSD. The classification makes it illegal to prescribe in smokeable form, proclaiming that marijuana has “no currently accepted medical treatment use,” despite those states with medical marijuana laws on the books.
Schedule II drugs, which include morphine and oxycodone, maintain an accepted medical use for treatment and can be prescribed, while remaining tightly regulated.
There is no credible medical organization or foundation that backs the idea that smoked marijuana has any real benefit, Dotter says. Other forms, such as pills and oils, have been around for decades and are already available by prescription.
Downgrades to drug classifications are quite rare, but changing the status could help researchers better study its potential benefits, a move medical marijuana advocates have been proposing for years. The most recent re-classification attempt (and failure) was in 2011, when a host of medical researchers spoke in favor of it.
Some experts argue that prohibition drives markets underground, putting control in the hands of people operating outside the law. Because marijuana is illegal, buying and selling the drug locally does carry some threat of violence, says Capt. Barnes.
James, as a respected professional, says he doesn’t worry about the risk when, about once a month or so, he shells out $60 for a bag containing about an eighth of an ounce of marijuana from a trusted friend.
“It’s remarkably easy to find it, and I’ve never once felt as though I was putting myself in some sort of jeopardy.”
But police say some transactions are indeed fraught with danger. Large drug seizures are often accompanied by caches of illegally-obtained firearms, Barnes says, and police are often faced with significant risk when carrying out drug operations.
“Anytime you have a large quantity of product, especially if that product is illegal and in high demand, you’re going to do anything you can to protect that product,” Barnes says.
Supporters of legalization say regulation would allow authorities to maintain oversight and set legal boundaries for marijuana production and sales. But what happens then to traffickers whose livelihood relies on selling illegal marijuana?
“Do the people selling marijuana then suddenly go out and get real jobs?” Barnes says. “Maybe. But maybe, too, they start selling the harder stuff, adding to that problem. We just don’t know.”
Although people at all income levels use marijuana, legalization supporters say poor people suffer disproportionately from the high fines levied for possession. James agrees.
“If I’m arrested, there will be consequences: professional ones, social ones, and yes, legal consequences,” James says. “But the fine would be the least of my worries. Now, that 21-year-old college student who’s hauled into jail for having a joint in his pocket? That’s a whole different ballgame.”
Nationwide, there is increasing support for relaxing the rules. In California, 60% of registered voters say they will favor an initiative in November to legalize pot for recreational use and allow government to tax its retail sales, according to an April Probolsky Research poll.
So far, at least, that support isn’t materializing in Wisconsin, and lawmakers are resisting the legalization trend.
Most recently, in March, the state Senate voted against relaxing rules for a marijuana compound used to treat chronic seizures in children because it contains trace amounts of THC, the plant’s psychoactive element. Legislation introduced by state Rep. Melissa Sargent (D-Madison) to legalize recreational marijuana never came up for a vote.
In Wausau, the penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana aren’t likely to change anytime soon. Still, Capt. Bliven says, it’s rare for his department to arrest people just for possessing a small amount of marijuana.
“Most of these arrests happen in connection with other crimes,” Bliven says. “It’s pretty unlikely that we’re going to arrest someone who’s smoking a small amount of marijuana in their home unless it’s related to something much larger, or if we’re responding to complaints.”
Marathon County District Attorney Ken Heimerman is quick to point out that the vast majority of first-time possession arrests are reduced to lesser charges. Many of those offenders are offered a diversion program that keeps criminal charges off their permanent record.
Marathon County District Attorney Ken Heimerman
In 2015, Marathon County prosecuted 207 marijuana possession charges. Of those, 45 qualified for the diversion program, which requires offenders to complete counseling about the impact of their marijuana use. Those who comply are never officially charged or fined; their names are not entered into the CCAP system.
The pre-charging program, launched by Marathon County in 2008, addresses low-risk offenders and helps them avoid a possible criminal record following a first-time arrest. Each case is considered on an individual basis, says Ruth Heinzl, coordinator of the diversion program.
“I like what we’re doing, because we’re educating the public on the dangers of marijuana,” Heimerman says. “I’m not in the habit of giving first-time offenders a criminal record, if I can help it.”
But local officials do not consider this a step toward decriminalization. Heimerman says he recognizes there are people like James who use the drug in a responsible way. “But you’re kidding yourself if you think pot isn’t harmless,” he says. “There’s a reason they call it ‘getting stoned.'”
When considering easing restrictions on marijuana, Barnes says it’s important to recognize the potential long-term impact.
“Two years of data isn’t really enough,” Barnes says. “Colorado is kind of turning into this big giant social experiment that everyone is watching. Will this lead to more problems or injuries on the job? Businesses leaving the state? Fatal car crashes? We just don’t know that yet.”