For the second year in a row, the Oshkosh Common Council has opted to retain the city’s $325 penalty for first-time marijuana possession rather than put the issue on the ballot for voters to decide.
Several council members expressed an interest in exploring options to the current law, but they opted not to take specific steps such as directing staff to develop language for an advisory referendum. The topic may return at a future council meeting.
“This issue of recreational and medicinal use [0f marijuana] is changing,” said Council Member Caroline Panske. “We are so far behind that the residents of this city are saying, ‘Wake up.'”
Panske said that she is facing six months in jail and a $1,000 fine for possession of a small amount of the drug.
A group called Decriminalize Oshkosh was successful in obtaining enough signatures to meet the test for direct legislative action by voters. But the city attorney has concluded that the proposal would repeal an existing ordinance, which she said the Wisconsin Supreme Court has ruled is not an acceptable use of the direct legislation mechanism.
This year’s petition language did not call for an outright repeal of the existing ordinance. But by adding a separate section that would reduce the penalty to $25, the proposal would create confusion and, in effect, override existing law, the city attorney said.
“The petitioners are pretending not to repeal the existing forfeitures when they, in fact, are doing just that,” said City Attorney Lynn Lorenson. “The proposed ordinance will change the existing penalties sections as they relate to first offenses for marijuana possession.”
On Facebook one of the organizers of the petition drive, Mark Kelderman, said he disagreed with this interpretation. “They could still enact this, but for now, they are challenging us,” he wrote.
“We respectfully disagree” with the city’s position, said Brian Hamill, a lawyer for the petition organizers. He said case law could be interpreted differently from the city’s position, but council members were unpersuaded.
Last year’s petition drive failed for multiple reasons. “The problems included that several different versions of the petition were submitted, issues with regard to the drafting of the petition and the clear intention of the petition to repeal an existing ordinance making the petition an improper subject for direct legislation,” Lorenson said.
This year the petition drive organizers obtained 3,778 valid signatures, which exceeded the minimum requirement of 3,643.
Lorenson recommended that the petition be received and filed but not acted upon. She also, however, pointed out two other options for the council to consider:
- Drafting an ordinance to reduce the fine for first offense possession that the council could take up in the future.
- Writing an advisory referendum question so that voters could indicate their preferences on the spring ballot.
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