Legislation co-authored by Reps. David Crowley (D-Milwaukee) and Shelia Stubbs (D-Madison) and would decriminalize possession of one ounce, or 28 grams of cannabis.
“While black men, women and children are just 6% of the population, we make up nearly 40% of the prison population. This disparity is a direct result of the unequal enforcement of our marijuana laws,” Crowley said in a statement.
He noted that in Milwaukee, “86% of all felony marijuana charges are levied against African-Americans — despite making up only 25% of the county’s population.” Milwaukee might be one of the most segregated cities in the country, but the effects of cannabis prohibition don’t end at its borders. “In Dane County,” said Crowley, “a black man or woman is nearly 100 times more likely to be arrested for a drug crime than their white counterparts.” This, he adds, is a major contributor to the “scourge” of mass incarceration.
Also promoting the bill is Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes. He calls possession of small amounts of marijuana a “victimless crime,” but in Wisconsin a first-time offense is punishable with a $1,000 find and up to six months in jail. A second offense is punishable with 3 ½ years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Gov. Tony Evers pushed for decriminalization of less than 25 grams of cannabis, calling it a matter of criminal justice reform. Even Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) has said he would be okay with medicinal cannabis in “pill form,” but Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) remains staunchly opposed to any marijuana reform.
In the absence of state-level legislation, local municipalities are taking steps to curb cannabis incarceration. During the Black and Latino Round Table earlier this month in the Capitol, Melvin Juette, director at the Dane County deferred prosecution program, said that prosecution for possession of under 50 grams of cannabis is highly discouraged.
“All the prosecutorial attorneys know that at a certain level, we are not charging that,” Juette told state legislators during the round table discussion.
Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm has also voiced support for legalizing cannabis. Chisholm said in January, “I believe that overall it would lessen the load on the criminal justice system, but understand that it would increase a load on the regulatory side, so you would have to have people that were enforcing the laws related to the sales of marijuana.”
Until the laws change, however, Chisholm’s office will seek alternatives to prosecution for cannabis-related arrests. In Wisconsin, a second arrest for cannabis possession is treated as a felony despite the fact that neighboring states have legalized the controversial plant.
A bill has been introduced to legalize medical cannabis and create a prescription system or patients. Sen Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point) called this legalization “an issue of compassion.”
In addition to the incarceration consequences of the drug war, Wisconsin is confronting the fallout from over-prescribing pills. Hemp has been called the Badger State’s new “comeback crop,” but patients who could be helped by marijuana are still looking for relief.
“Everyone has a story about watching a loved one suffering,” Rep, Chris Taylor (D-Madison), who is co-sponsoring the medicinal marijuana bill, told Wisconsin Examiner. “It’s senseless knowing that the thing that could help give them relief, which is medical marijuana, is either illegal or not accessible to them.” (Rep. Melissa Sargent (D-Madison) has introduced a bill for full legalization of marijuana in Wisconsin.)
Crowley feels that a decriminalization bill is long overdue. “Wisconsin is now an island of antiquated drug policy in a sea of decriminalization. It is absolutely wrong to continue this needless cycle of disparate enforcement that continues to feed mass incarceration,” he says.
“We have lost a generation of men and women to the failed war on drugs and mass incarceration,” Crowley adds. “How many more must be lost before we have the courage to do something about it?”