MADISON, Wis. - The Great Midwest Marijuana Harvest Festival is pushing its 42nd year, still uniting people in an effort to legalize the drug. The event culminates with a march down State Street. For the first time, however, the groups running the event are being asked to pay for extra officers.
Starting earlier this year, Madison Police Department now charges for special-duty officers and squad cars to be present at high-volume events. Most of the time, those patrols are requested for parades, rallies or other events that might interfere with traffic.
It costs $31.79 per officer with a minimum of two hours at an event. On top of that, any overtime will be one and a half times the officer's pay rate plus benefits. A squad car will cost $15 extra. The groups running Sunday's march are opting out of the officers. Madison Police will then rely on its normal crews to make sure all laws are abided by and all traffic rules are followed.
Madison Police spokesperson Joel DeSpain said, "There will not be special-duty officers. What we'll have in the downtown are regular patrol officers who are in that area every day."
DeSpain said reaching out to groups for payment is a way for the police department to save taxpayer dollars and best use the limited resources the force has at its disposal.
"Trying to protect taxpayers, trying to take a look at our resources, which are limited, and balancing that with the First Amendment," DeSpain explained. "The First Amendment is going to trump everything and we want people to be able to exercise their rights and speak freely in the city."
Four organizations have paid up for special-duty officers so far this year. The March of Dimes requested two officers for about five and a half hours, totaling $175.48. We Are Wisconsin spent $127.16 for a pair of officers for four hours. Madison College used three officers and their squad cars for 10 hours, picking up a $362.90 bill. The Catholic Diocese paid $657.96 for four officers with overtime and cars.
Five other organizations that applied for parade permits opted out of officers.
Mayor Paul Soglin had reservations about the rule. He stresses that any group wishing to demonstrate has a right to refuse the cost and the extra coverage, but says he does not want to see this have a "chilling effect" on people trying to express their First Amendment rights.
"It leaves people with this impression," Soglin said. "Of all places, Madison, Wisconsin, will be known for free speech."
Jeff Scott Olson represented a couple of groups marching for marijuana this weekend in a lawsuit a couple of years ago. Olson says no one should have to pay to protest.
"A little man with no money doesn't have much in the way of political capital, and marching in the street is about all of the poor have left," Olson said.
Mayor Soglin says he plans to sit down and talk with police about these new rules on the books.