Bipartisan bill to reduce cannabis fines introduced

By: - November 17, 2021 4:56 am
photo of three leaves from a marijuana pot plant an a vial of oil

Photo by Kimzy Nanney on Unsplash

Wisconsin legislators are taking another crack at a bipartisan push to achieve cannabis reform in the state. A new piece of legislation, co-authored by Rep. Shae Sortwell (R-Gibson), Rep. Sylvia Ortiz-Valez (D-Milwaukee), Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) and Sen. Kathleen Bernier (R- Chippewa Falls), reduces existing penalties for cannabis possession. Possession under current law can lead to a felony charge, a fine of up to $1,000 and up to six months incarceration. Under the proposed legislation, fines would be reduced to a $100 civil forfeiture for possession of 14 grams or less of cannabis. Instances of possession involving 28 grams or less would not count as a repeat offense.

“Simple possession of small amounts of marijuana should not result in one being sent to prison and risking their chances of employment for the rest of their life,” said Sortwell. Since 2010, an average of 15,485 arrests are made per year for cannabis possession in Wisconsin. Meanwhile, an increasing number of states have either partially or fully legalized cannabis. This includes several states which share a border with Wisconsin. “It is time for Wisconsin to engage in the national discussion for common sense marijuana reform,” Sortwell added.

A press release from Ortiz-Velez’s office also highlights provisions in the bill affecting court and booking, explaining that it “streamlines law enforcement and courts’ booking process to save time, money, and resources. The burden placed on local resources, from police focus, man-hours for arrests, paper work, and court appearances, to the court system dockets and public defender costs, would be much better spent on serious violent crimes.”

The bill also limits the liability of an employer who does not require an employee or prospective employee to take a drug test for cannabis as a condition of employment. Unlike many other substances, from prescription medications to cocaine and heroin, cannabis can stay in a person’s system for days or weeks. For people with slower metabolisms, the time tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is detectable can be even longer.

Earlier this year, Gov. Tony Evers pushed for a fully legalized cannabis market. “Legalizing and taxing marijuana in Wisconsin,” said Evers, “just like we already do with alcohol, ensures a controlled market and safe product are available for both recreational and medicinal users and can open the door for countless opportunities for us to reinvest in our communities and create a more equitable state.” A Badger State cannabis market could have potentially brought $165 million in additional tax revenue. Evers’ proposal would have  allocated $80 million of the proceeds to a community reinvestment fund. Other tax revenues from cannabis could have been used to create equity grants through the departments of Health Services, Administration, and Children and Families.

The proposal  was rejected by the GOP-controlled legislature. That hasn’t stopped Sortwell and other Republicans from attempting to push the envelope alongside Democratic colleagues. Sortwell has introduced bills in the past to lower existing fines for cannabis possession. Now Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma) has introduced her own bill to legalize medicinal cannabis. Felzkowski’s bill requires the cannabis to be in the form of a liquid, oil, pill or tincture. While legalization efforts have been unsuccessful, some local municipalities have opted to reduce fines for simple  possession.

Ortiz-Velez was involved in one of these efforts in Milwaukee County. Fines for possession of cannabis or paraphernalia was reduced to not more than $1. Prior fines in Milwaukee County were set to not less than $250 and not more than $500. In 2019, according to a Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors press release, 187 citations for possession were issued in the county. Similar fine reductions are being explored in the city of Milwaukee. In Madison, cannabis possession has been decriminalized, and fines in Appleton dropped to not more than $5 for a first time offense.

Although some local municipalities have reduced their fines, others remain committed to a continued drug war against cannabis. In early October, a bill to  increase already existing felony penalties for possession of butane hash oil, sometimes called “dabs” passed a Senate committee.

Rep. Jesse James (R- Altoona) said the bill is designed to go after people who manufacture or produce hashish with butane. However, the bill also covers simple possession. Hashish is a form of concentrated THC oil and is legal in states with regulated cannabis markets. James stated the bill was crafted by the West Central Drug Task Force, composed of law enforcement representatives from the Mississippi River to the middle of Wisconsin.

The bill to reduce cannabis fines  is supported by about a dozen legislators from both parties. The deadline for co-sponsorship is Tuesday, Nov. 23.


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Isiah Holmes
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, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets. He was also featured in the 2018 documentary The Chase Key, and was the recipient of the Sierra Club Great Waters Group 2021 Environmental Hero of the Year award. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council also awarded Holmes its 2021-2022 Media Openness Award for using the open records laws for investigative journalism. Holmes was also a finalist in the 2021 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards alongside the rest of the Wisconsin Examiner's staff. The Silver, or second place, award for Best Online Coverage of News was awarded to Holmes and his colleague Henry Redman for an investigative series into how police responded to the civil unrest and protests in Kenosha during 2020. Holmes was also awarded the Press Club's Silver (second-place) award for Public Service Journalism for articles focusing on police surveillance in Wisconsin.