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Chill out, it’s only debate

The odor wouldn’t have been out of place at a Grateful Dead concert but did seem a little incongruous inside the state Capitol.

It wafted across my nostrils as I was on my way to a Senate committee hearing on a bill pertaining to zoning rules along lakes, rivers and other bodies of water. I had to take a few steps back and inspect my surroundings; was someone actually toking up in the halls of power?

A quick look at the meeting’s agenda said all I needed to know. Alongside the bill I was interested in, the committee was also taking up one that would allow cities to enforce local anti-marijuana ordinances after a district attorney had decided to not press charges against someone for the same alleged violation.

At least one person in the hearing room was wearing buttons showing his support of pro-marijuana causes. Since I could find no evidence that someone had lit up indoors, I had to suppose the smell had been brought in on clothes.

The debate over the bill was impassioned.

State Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, said it would lead to further overcrowding in prisons, which, she said, are already unfairly packed with inmates who have been found guilty mostly of nonviolent crimes. Others contended that drunken driving and alcohol are far greater scourges in Wisconsin.

The sponsors of the bill and an Assembly companion bill, state Sen. Richard Gudex and state Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, both Republicans from Fond du Lac, said they were merely trying to eliminate a discrepancy in state law, one that allows cities to enforce local ordinances when someone has been arrested on a first marijuana violation but not on subsequent violations.

As the debate veered away from the bills they were actually proposing, they made it clear they were not in favor of decriminalizing the use of marijuana, but said that was a subject for another time.

Several of those who testified said Wisconsin would be going against the grain if it passed a law that would make it easier to punish marijuana users. Most states, they said, are now loosening their restrictions on the drug.

But they should have taken comfort at least from this telling sign of the times: They could walk into a government meeting and talk openly to legislators about their use of an illegal substance apparently without fear of legal consequences.

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