Ending Wisconsin’s cannabis prohibition is an effort being pushed across multiple fronts. While proposals are hashed out in the halls of government, and not likely to succeed while the GOP controls both Legislative branches, advocates also see the need to shift the narrative around cannabis.
From Michigan to Minnesota, Illinois to even Iowa, cannabis is available in either recreational form, medical or both. Wisconsin, however, continues to lag behind in reforming its policies.
“I think it’s just cognitive dissonance,” Eric Marsch, an organizer with the pro-cannabis group Southeastern Wisconsin National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML), tells Wisconsin Examiner. “It’s hard to admit that you were so wrong on something so significant.”
For cannabis advocates, getting people who have lived under prohibition for so long to see the plant in a different way is part of the battle. But he believes that states that are seeing positive effects from legalization are setting examples for their prohibition-minded neighbors. “In Colorado, opioid addictions have been going down faster than they have been going down in surrounding states that haven’t legalized it,” he says. “It flips the gateway drug argument on its head.”
One 2018 study, published by Claremont McKenna College, took a closer look at already established data suggesting that access to cannabis could help alleviate the opioid crisis. “Using a unique data set of medical cannabis dispensaries combined with county-level mortality data,” reads the study’s abstract, “we estimate the effect of dispensaries operating in a county on the number of overdose deaths. We find that counties with dispensaries experience 6%-8% fewer opioid-related deaths among non-Hispanic white men. Mortality involving heroin declines by approximately 10% following the opening of a dispensary.”
Wisconsin is no stranger to the costs of the overdose crisis seen across the country. Rates of fatal drug overdoses in Milwaukee County are breaking new records every year. In 2020, addiction treatment centers saw record high numbers of new patients. Meanwhile, the Medical Examiner’s Office worked its way through another record year of loss. By the end of 2020, Milwaukee County had recorded more than 500 drug-related deaths. That’s an increase from the 418 documented in 2019.
The crisis became a key argument for Milwaukee County officials who, on Feb. 9, proposed legislation to reduce possession fines for cannabis. Bryan Kennedy, the City of Glendale’s mayor, based his support for cannabis reform in the need to address the overdose and addiction epidemic. “The use of opioids is the epidemic in our country right now,” said Kennedy, “Marijuana is not the epidemic.”
Yet people who seek out cannabis products as an alternative treatment face the prospect of felony convictions and, as Kennedy notes, “exorbitant fines.”
“So for people who aren’t really on board with this right now, what I would say is, talk to the folks around you who have used opioids,” says Kennedy. “Who have had addictions to opioids, who have lost loved ones to opioids, and say, ‘Would you rather that person had been able to legally obtain marijuana and use that as the medicine as opposed to the opioid?’”
Kennedy adds: “I’ve never even had a cigarette in my life. I was raised Morman.” Nevertheless, he supports cannabis reform because of the dire need to rethink the growing opioid crisis.
“We have to have a way to combat the opioid addiction,” says Kennedy. “And the way to do that is to follow the lead of dozens of their states that have approved either full legalization, or have approved medical marijuana usage. And because we don’t have the momentum in the state’s legislation to accomplish that, what we can do for one-sixth of the state’s population here in Milwaukee County, is support the ordinance that the supervisor has introduced.”
Milwaukee County Supv. Sylvia Ortiz-Velez and others have introduced legislation to lower the fines for possession of cannabis and paraphernalia to not more than $1. Reducing penalties is just about all local municipalities can do until state laws change. The proposed legislation is also co-sponsored by County Supvs. Ryan Clancy, Sequanna Taylor, Joseph Czarnezki, Willie Johnson Jr., Liz Summer and board chair Marcelia Nicholson.
“For too long, Wisconsinites have watched their Midwestern neighbors in Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota benefit from progressive legislation that decriminalizes and legalizes medical and recreational marijuana while we continue to live in the past,” Ortiz-Velez said during the press conference announcing the legislation. She added, “Neighboring states have enjoyed increased tax revenue and tourism dollars as people in Milwaukee County have been hit with hefty fines and jail time for possessing small amounts of marijuana.”
Currently, possession fines in Milwaukee County range from $250-$500. Even as cannabis enforcement is increasingly de-prioritized by law enforcement, prohibition continues to disproportionately affect low-income Black and brown communities. In April 2020, a study by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that nationwide African Americans are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than whites, despite rates of usage being similar between the two demographic groups.
On Feb. 10, Nicholson followed up the legislation announcement by applauding the efforts of Gov. Tony Evers to legalize recreational cannabis use. “Legalizing and decriminalizing marijuana,” she said, “can help us work towards our goal of achieving racial equity and making Milwaukee County the healthiest in Wisconsin. We have seen time and time again that our drug laws have had a disproportionately negative impact on Black communities. Legalization in other states has often brought greater benefits to white and affluent communities by excluding those affected by the war on drugs from its associated economic opportunities.”
Nicholson added that, “my hope is that the state Legislature includes Gov. Evers’ proposal in the final state budget, but I understand this will be an uphill climb. This is why it is important that we do all we can on the local level to decriminalize marijuana possession and free our constituents from the undue financial burden currently put upon those charged with possessing small amounts of marijuana.”
Marsch is encouraged by the increasingly bipartisan support cannabis reforms are seeing in Wisconsin. He points to South Dakota and Montana as, “two deep red states that overwhelmingly voted to legalize recreational marijuana. “I mean, the Republican voters support it,” says Marsch. “So, I think the trick now will be getting Republicans in primaries who support recreational marijuana. I mean, those areas up north, they’re red areas. I don’t know if we can flip them to blue, but there are Republicans who support it.”
Representatives in Wisconsin’s GOP have introduced legislation to reduce possession fines, and provide a framework for a medical cannabis industry. Rep. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma), for example, pushed a bill to make medical cannabis available in liquid form only. Her legislation also would have created a Medical Marijuana Regulatory Commission to oversee the state’s cannabis programs. Support for recreational cannabis, however, still remains largely taboo on that side of the aisle.
Marsch also hopes that redistricting could help bring an end to cannabis prohibition in Wisconsin. “I’m really hoping for 2022, we can have some fair maps and actually have a fair election. And then, maybe, the people’s voice will actually be heard.”