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Whitewater takes aim at synthetic pot

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Kevin Hoffman
June 8, 2011
— Whitewater could soon join dozens of communities throughout Wisconsin cracking down on the sale and use of synthetic marijuana.

The city council Tuesday voted 5 to 1 to approve the first reading of an ordinance that would ban the product throughout the city and levy fines on those possessing or selling it. Communities like Janesville, Milton and Evansville already approved similar laws, but Whitewater is in a unique situation because of the university there.


Though the city could adopt its own ordinance, it wouldn’t be enforceable on campus property, UW-Whitewater Police Chief Matt Kiederlen said.


The decision to ban synthetic marijuana at universities would have to come from the state, or the change would need to be made to the UW System administrative code, System spokesperson David Giroux said.


That would require adoption by the board of regents and passive review from the state legislature, which allows lawmakers to either object to the change or let it slide through.


“You form kind of a weird quandary,” Kiederlen said, adding that he hasn’t identified many instances of students using the controversial product. “Until the state declares it illegal, there’s not really anything we can do. … It’s not that simple, unfortunately.”


More than half of communities with four-year campuses have passed their own restrictions on the substance.


Kiederlen said he would support a statewide ban, but until that decision is made, smoking synthetic cannabinoids is legal as long as it’s 25 feet from campus buildings. That’s enforced under UW-W’s smoking policy passed in 2008.


Whitewater police officer John Kleinfeldt said he responded to at least one incident where someone was incapacitated after smoking one of the various forms of synthetic marijuana.


Council members and law enforcement officials agreed they didn’t fully understand the health risks, but Interim Police Chief Lisa Otterbacher said she wanted to address the issue before it became a problem.


“Right now we want something better than nothing,” she said. “It’s a quiet killer.”


Otterbacher said banning the product was important not only to prevent people from using it but also to keep it off of store shelves.


Just one Whitewater business is known to sell synthetic cannabinoids, she said—a product called “Purple Spice” that carries a picture of Scooby Doo on its label.


Otterbacher and council members said the way the product is marketed was reason enough to restrict it from the city.


“It’s clearly targeting our youth, and they’re not prepared for that,” Otterbacher said. “When it’s available out there, it gives the impression that it’s fine.”


The ordinance will require another reading by the council before it’s enacted, but Tuesday’s vote indicated strong support. Alderman Javonni Butler was the only person to oppose it.


A bill that would ban synthetic cannabinoids statewide—co-authored by Rep. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater—continues to progress through the legislature. The Senate approved the proposal May 17. It awaits review by the assembly’s Committee on Rules.


ABOUT THE ORDINANCE

The ordinance would be enforceable in the city but not on UW-Whitewater’s campus, which holds separate jurisdiction.


Proposed penalties for possession or use are $400 for a first offense and $500 for a second. Sale or delivery penalties are $700 for a first offense and $800 for a second. All fines could include additional court and assessment costs.



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