‘It’s been decriminalized even further’: What you need to know about new marijuana ordinance enforcement in Madison

MADISON, Wis. – New measures approved by Madison’s Common Council to loosen ordinances surrounding marijuana are changing the way enforcement will look in the city.

Under the new ordinances passed Tuesday night, people 18 and older will be allowed to use or possess up to 28 grams, or about an ounce, of marijuana on public and private property, as long as they have the permission of the property owner, landlord or tenant. Possessing paraphernalia also will not be punished.

Citation fines are being reduced from $50 plus court costs to $1 plus court costs. Heavier penalties still apply for those charged with intent to deliver cannabis.

“It’s been decriminalized even further,” Assistant City Attorney Marci Paulsen said. “You’re permitted to possess and consume marijuana in public places, which before you were not allowed to do that. You have to comply with the smoking ordinance, so it’s not like you can smoke marijuana in a restaurant or a bar, but you could walking down the street now.”

In practice, Paulsen said that could lead to some pretty significant changes.

“Before, the Madison Police Department would write citations for individuals possessing marijuana if they arrested individuals with marijuana on them or if they came across a vehicle with people smoking marijuana,” she said. “Now, they won’t be unless it rises to the level of a state statute violation where it’s a significant possession amount or significant crimes are involved in it.”

Interim Madison Police Chief Vic Wahl expressed a few concerns Wednesday, saying his preference would be for marijuana law changes to happen at the state level for consistency and with the stipulation that users be at least 21.

“Those instances where officers come across people with small amounts of marijuana have sometimes resulted in city ordinance citations for casual possession of marijuana,” Wahl said in a statement. “This can be an important tool for officers who are trying to address other problem behaviors where no other options are present.  Now we will not have this option.”

He added that the Dane County district attorney’s office has a general policy not to charge simple possession of marijuana in cases with small amounts, typically less than 28 grams, though they will charge in unusual circumstances or if connected with another criminal act.

The new ordinances don’t apply on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.

“It is important to note this action does not apply on campus as state lands are not governed by local ordinances,” UWPD Assistant Chief Brent Plisch wrote, adding that their current enforcement action surrounding marijuana is most often in the form of civil forfeiture citations.

A UWPD spokesperson added that their enforcement is primarily behavior-based, meaning they will respond when they receive complaints about it, rather than actively searching for those violating the law.

Paulsen said not to expect the city to license any sort of dispensary.

“While it is decriminalized, it is still considered a controlled substance, and individuals need to take that into account,” Paulsen said, cautioning users that it’s still illegal to drive under the influence. “If you are going to consume marijuana, please do so safely.”