INTRODUCTION: Tomah is a West-Central Wisconsin city located at the junction of Interstates 90 and 94. Home to a Veterans Administration Medical Center, Tomah had a 2014 estimated population of 9,328. Chris King was elected to the Tomah City Council in Spring 2016 as 4th District alder. Previously he had served as a Monroe County Supervisor. One of the issues Chris campaigned about was cannabis decriminalization in Tomah. With little sign a majority of state lawmakers are ready to lead on this issue, there has been a lot of effort at the local level over the last couple years in many Wisconsin communities. In April 2015, Dane County supervisors reduced first-time pot fines to $1 plus costs with Dane County Executive Joe Parisi urging other county municipalities to follow suit. The City of Fitchburg quietly did, reducing their fines from $1000 plus costs to $1 plus costs in Summer 2015. The City of Monona Public Safety Commission rejected lowering fines in February 2016, with Madison NORML currently circulating petitions to force a vote on $1.00 fines plus costs. The Milwaukee City Council reduced pot fines in Milwaukee in June 2015 to $0-50.00 for first time offenders. Other locations around the state including Stevens Point and Middleton have eased penalties for first-time offenders with local efforts continuing. We asked Chris King about the plans for Tomah and how citizens can help make this a reality:
Cannabadger: Your Tomah Journal column from February said the current penalty for first time cannabis possession in the city of Tomah is $300 and I’m assuming there are court costs on top of that too. Second offenses are $400 or can be forwarded to the County D.A. for state misdemeanor or felony charges. What are you proposing?
CK: I think it’s important to highlight that there are at least 7 other council members that will be working with us on this, and the end legislation may differ from my initial proposal for comprehensive drug control policy reform. With that said, we would like to see the City of Tomah lower the bond schedule for possession of cannabis in violation of our city ordinances drastically reduced. I’d like to say 1 dollar, as other municipalities have done, but again it’s a work in progress and collaboration. In addition, I want to establish that up to 3 offenses for cannabis possession will remain within the Tomah Municipal Court jurisdiction, creating a different kind of sanctuary city, avoiding the dual jeopardy of criminal prosecution at the county level and the person’s name and offense being listed on Wisconsin’s circuit court access website, CCAP. As part of the comprehensive reform, we also want to send a message that opiate abuse will not be tolerated in our city. We’ve seen too many problems with the VA and the overall heroine tragedy throughout our city and county, with the now common-place occurrence of deaths due to overdose. We know cannabis in and of itself has never killed anyone. Therefore, I would like our council to consider reforms in the area of illegally obtained prescription drugs, maybe adopting more of a drug court approach.
Cannabadger: Originally I remember some discussion of putting this before voters through binding direct legislation. Are you more confident now that you can find the necessary support on the council to avoid having to circulate petitions and collect signatures like Madison NORML is doing in the City of Monona?
CK: What is being done in Monona through their citizens and NORML has served as a catalyst here in Tomah. It has enabled us to use Monona as an example of what can be done if the rest of the council stands in the way of the proposed reforms. I’ve also highlighted with our mayor that I could see the potential for a direct legislation referendum presenting the chance to grow into something adversarial, with people staking out their respective corners and creating division. Whereas, I believe it would behoove each of us council members to move Tomah forward with a united front, in a spirit of rational cooperation. I don’t think any public servant wants to be seen as a road block to obviously needed reforms. Not to mention based on Tomah’s last election turnout, we would only need to gather a hair over 400 signatures to place the issue on a binding referendum, a considerably lower number than is required in Monona.
Cannabadger: There is a “Committee of the Whole” meeting scheduled for July 11. What is this meeting about? Where do things go next?
CK: Due to our commitment to transparency and adherence to open meetings laws, our council has not had the opportunity to discuss the issue of cannabis decriminalization thus far. July 11 will be the first time that our whole council has taken up the topic and the first time that we will get a chance to see where each individual council member stands on the matter. At this point, there is not a resolution available to vote on the topic of cannabis reform. In the best case scenario, the outcome of the council’s discussion will be to direct our city attorney to draft the pertinent legislation based on a consensus, to be brought before the council for an up or down vote in August.
Cannabadger: Obviously, residents of Tomah hold the most sway in this debate. What should they do if they want to support this issue? And how can supporters who are not Tomah residents help out this effort?
CK: First and foremost we need supporters of logical cannabis reforms to show up on July 11 at 6PM, at Tomah City Hall. We need those who are comfortable and capable to utilize this opportunity during the public comments to let the council know that the old way is no longer the acceptable way. It would be nice if supporters from outside of Tomah were able to provide peaceful demonstrations outside of city hall as well; we want to really hype this up for the big deal it is! We have an awesome opportunity here in Tomah to do something great for our cause, but if we don’t have a large presence, the lack of citizen participation will promote a perception that this is a fringe proposal that lacks wide spread public demand or will to push it through. That would be a disastrous development that could also lessen the council’s fear of direct legislation, where the complacency of those who can’t move beyond keyboard activism holds the potential to destroy this opportunity to advance the cause and make our drug control laws more rational and reasonable.
Cannabadger: Anything else you care to add?
CK: I just want to thank the citizens of Tomah who brought us to this station through their overwhelming support for the reforms proposed during our campaign. Without you, we would be so much farther away from realizing true change. In addition, the mayor has done an amazing job in helping ensure that our voices are formally heard by placing the matter on the agenda. Overall however, I want to emphasize that nothing is a given, and we can’t let up now. We want to be optimistic, and I think we’re in a good spot, but we also have to be prepared to remain focused on the binding, direct legislation if a majority of our city council fails to progress and stands in the way of these necessary reforms. I am ready to fight as long and hard as needed to get there, and I hope that we can keep the momentum going no matter what happens, because the authority is ultimately in the electorate’s hands.