Bill to reduce cannabis fines introduced in state Legislature

    Young caucasian man wearing sweater arrested for possession of illegal marijuana drugs holding a bag of marijuana and a green cannabis leaf. Getty Royalty free
    Young caucasian man wearing sweater arrested for possession of illegal marijuana drugs holding a bag of marijuana and a green cannabis leaf.

    A bipartisan bill aiming to reduce existing fines for possessing cannabis is getting another shot in the Wisconsin Assembly. The bill would reduce fines for possession of up to 10 grams of cannabis from no more than $1,000 to $100, while eliminating the six months of imprisonment that may come with that charge under current law.

    Sen. Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls) is the only senator sponsoring the bill thus far. In early 2020, Bernier, along with then-state Rep. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma), pushed legislation for legalizing medicinal cannabis in Wisconsin. In the wake of that move, Rep. Shae Sortwell (R-Two Rivers) introduced a bill to drop the existing fines for 10 grams of cannabis or less.

    Wisconsin has become an island surrounded by U.S. states, and an international neighbor to the north, with legalized cannabis. This reality has compelled some lawmakers on both the state and local levels to continue to push for reformative policies.

    Sen. Kathy Bernier

    Much has changed in the year since those initial pushes in 2020. Felzkowski is now a state senator, some anti-cannabis GOP lawmakers are no longer in the state Assembly and Senate and the country is still reeling from the economic costs of the pandemic, which arrived just a couple months after Bernier, Felzkowski and others first drafted the cannabis bills.

    Local municipalities, including Madison, Appleton and Milwaukee have also explored the possibility of lowering fines and de-prioritizing cannabis enforcement. Lowering fines, however, is not the same as legalizing the plant. Gov. Tony Evers has rekindled efforts to bring cannabis legalization in the upcoming state budget, pointing to it as a possible significant boost to Wisconsin’s ailing economy. Republican leadership, however, remains generally resistant to cannabis reform in Wisconsin and has declared his budget dead on arrival, including full legalization.

    “I support the concept of the bill Senator Felzkowski and I introduced last session regarding medical marijuana,” said Bernier in a co-sponsorship memo for the new bill. “The federal government still considers marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug. I believe that needs to be changed. However, it is clear there is not legislative support for this change, just as there was not an appetite for the medical marijuana bill introduced last session. Rather than acknowledge that, the Governor decided to issue a half-baked scheme to legalize recreational marijuana on Super Bowl Sunday, barely a week before his budget address.”

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    Bernier has stated that Evers’ strategy was not one of cooperation with the GOP. “I wish I could have spoken with the Governor beforehand,” she said. “He has to know this plan does not yet have legislative support and he should have known better than to treat an issue that requires the utmost cooperation with such carelessness.”

    The state’s biennial budget process is in its initial stages. What provisions may make it into the final bill is far from determined.

    Isiah Holmes
    Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, and other outlets.