Our Views: As marijuana gains ground, law enforcement faces decisions

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Thursday, October 10, 2013

You can't blame police in Rock and Walworth counties for continuing to enforce marijuana laws. After all, the drug is still illegal in Wisconsin.

You have to wonder, though, how long that will be the case.

And when law officers and district attorneys set priorities and decide how to allocate their limited resources, you couldn't blame them for putting marijuana law enforcement low on their lists.

As The Gazette's Nico Savidge reported Oct. 5, marijuana legalization is sweeping across America, and the latest state to take the step is our southern neighbor, Illinois. Medical marijuana will be legal there starting Jan. 1.

That will make Illinois the 20th state to legalize marijuana for medical use. Two others, Washington and Colorado, have legalized marijuana for recreational use.

The trend is clear, and it's likely to continue. In Wisconsin, two Democratic legislators earlier this month introduced a bill to legalize medical marijuana in the state. The bill from Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, and Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, would provide legal protection to medical cannabis users, along with legal protection for testers and prescribing physicians.

It's the third time Erpenbach and Taylor have proposed the legislation, and it's not likely to go far with Republicans in control of state government. The GOP won't always have the upper hand, however, and even some Republicans are likely to be convinced eventually that legalizing marijuana makes sense.

In the meantime, local law enforcement has decisions to make, and officials quoted in Savidge's story made it clear that they won't back down on enforcing marijuana laws.

“It's still against the law here,” said Capt. Dana Nigbor of the Walworth County Sheriff's Office. “People are still possessing it, selling it, and it's still against the law.”

Beloit police Sgt. Dan Tilley, however, offered a practical assessment of where marijuana ranks among his department's priorities.

“(Marijuana) is most used, but it's probably the lowest priority. Heroin is killing people, and crack is so addictive, so that's why we try to focus on that.”

Unsaid but implied by Tilley is that marijuana's effects on users and society are considerably less than those of the harder drugs. That's why legalization efforts have gained so much ground in the US in a relatively short time.

For now, law officers in Wisconsin must do their jobs when confronted with illegal activity involving marijuana. It wouldn't be surprising and might be appropriate, however, if they were less aggressive in pursuing marijuana violations when choices must be made.

After all, it's legal in much of our land, and it could be only a matter of time before it's legal here, as well.

This article was revised Oct. 11, 2013, to reflect the following correction:


An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly identified one of the two states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Washington and Colorado are the states.

Last updated: 3:27 pm Thursday, October 10, 2013

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