Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Targeting drug policy

Sweat beads pop out of flushed faces and someone at the party opens a window. A little Nelly seeps out into the sticky summer night, irking the sleeping neighbors. Soon, a few uninvited, uniformed guests roll up to the house.

Responding to the noise complaint, the police officers knock on the door. It creaks open, revealing a couchful of students drunkenly discussing the meaning of life, a tiny dance party in the corner and a semicircle of people sitting on the floor passing around a pipe. After turning off the stereo, the officers examine the pipe and find about one-sixth of a gram of marijuana inside.

So what happens next?


According to University of Wisconsin Police Department Det. Brett Fernholz, the story’s ending is not that predictable. The investigating officers could stick to state statutes and charge the partiers with criminal possession of marijuana. However, the officers also have the option to follow Section 23.20 of the Madison General Ordinances, which states that possessing less than 112 grams of marijuana in a private place is not a crime. They could simply take the contraband and leave without charging the students.

“If a police officer contacts a student and a legal search is conducted and the officer discovers one gram of marijuana, at that amount there is a lot of discretion involved,” Fernholz said. “Ultimately, it’s up to the police officer whether to charge or not.”

Enforcement issues lie at the heart of a recently revitalized discussion about Madison drug policy kick-started by the Progressive Danes, a liberal local political party with members on the Madison City Council and the Dane County Board. The Danes’ platform states, “Drug use and abuse should be treated as a public health rather than a law enforcement issue.”

The party held a forum Aug. 20 presenting the results of their Drug Policy Task Force’s research into local drug policy and its implementation. Getting checked into an inpatient drug rehab to overcome drug abuse is cruicial.

Task force in collaboration with alcohol rehab miami fl described the initiatives the Danes want Madison to adopt, including following ordinance 23.20 and not arresting people for possessing marijuana on private property, training police about drug laws and their consequences, and not prosecuting those who call 911 to report overdose victims unless foul play is involved.

“The crux of the matter is that all different parties involved in different aspects of drug policy operate independently,” Rearick said. “Law enforcement conflicts with treatment and social services. We’re asking to form a cohesive policy so different branches aren’t working against each other.”

Linking students to drug policy

Although it is not well known, drug charges carry extra consequences for students requesting college aid money. Buried within the federal financial aid form lies a question asking whether the applicant has been convicted of a drug-related offense. Under the Higher Education Act of 1998, a “yes” answer bars the student from receiving aid for one year from the date of their conviction. Students with multiple convictions cannot receive aid until they complete a federally approved drug-rehabilitation program.

The Clinton administration did not enforce the HEA drug provision, but the Bush administration currently does.

“Over 30,000 college students were denied federal loans and grants for the 2002-2003 school year,” UW Students for a Sensible Drug Policy member Rob Spencer said. “And 86,898 students have been denied aid since the HEA drug provision was first enforced in 2000.”

While statistics detailing the number of UW students affected by the drug clause were unavailable, Student Financial Services director Steve Van Ess said the numbers were “minimal.” Still, he said it is impossible to ascertain the number of students who “self-select out” before they actually apply for aid.

“Our position is that the application is already complicated enough,” Van Ess said. “You shouldn’t junk it up with extraneous items. If someone has a drug conviction, then you should punish them in their drug sentencing; don’t add on financial aid bells and whistles.”

Enforcement officials are often as clueless as students about the effect a drug charge can have on a college career.

The Dane County Narcotics and Gang Task Force, the body responsible for drug-related incidents in Madison, includes officers from the Dane County sheriff’s office, the Madison Police Department and the UW Police Department. However, only one UWPD officer is on the force at a time. The officer assigned to the force serves a three-year shift, and then a new UWPD officer rotates into the position. Fernholz, who just finished a three-year stint, said county and city police often have limited contact with students, unlike university officers.

“We realize sometimes it isn’t just the charge the student could get in trouble for; we realize there are other implications,” he said.

Starting a dialogue

While students’ financial concerns are certainly important, drug charges can lead to far more serious consequences, including imprisonment. Because a police officer’s decision to criminally charge an offender for marijuana possession on top of other charges can lead to dramatically increased punishment, Rearick said, the Danes are asking Mayor Sue Bauman to issue a directive to the police asking them to follow ordinance 23.20, adopted in 1977, instead of charging offenders under state law.

However, although Bauman said she views drug abuse “as a health issue rather than a law enforcement issue,” she will not issue any directives until she confers with the police force.

“I’ve wanted to begin a dialogue, but it keeps being put off,” she said. “We need to separate use from issue of sale and the violence that is associated with sale, which is the primary concern of the police department. I am going to meet with the police to talk about it real soon.”

Lt. Brian Ackeret, head of the Dane County Narcotics and Gang Task Force, also would not take a definite stance on the ordinance versus state law issue.
“We’re still looking into how we feel about that,” he said.
He said the task force is “more than willing to train officers on different drug laws, consequences and penalties.” However, Ackeret said making a blanket statement about charging in 911 overdose cases is not something the force should do.
“We’re still going to investigate and make decisions on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “Primarily, we’re interested in tracking down sources of drugs causing people to overdose.”
Fernholz said it is important for police officers to retain their discretionary powers.
“If I catch somebody speeding 100 miles an hour — should you always issue a citation?” he asked. “What if the person is speeding someone to the hospital and if they don’t get there in time, they will die?
“That’s why there is discretion in police work. Nothing’s straight and narrow.”

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