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Milwaukee Considers Decriminalizing Marijuana

Black residents are far more likely to pay the price for violations than whites

Dec. 9, 2014
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Americans seem to be getting more comfortable with legalizing pot.

Colorado and Washington have fully legalized marijuana and 23 states and Washington, D.C, have legalized medical marijuana. Public opinion seems to support that shift. Even in Wisconsin, 49% support full legalization, according to a Marquette University Law School poll taken earlier this year.

Yet the city of Milwaukee isn’t so relaxed about marijuana—even very small amounts of it. The Milwaukee police are still busting residents for small-scale possession, minor violations that can have very serious consequences, such as high fines or even jail time.

“Our enforcement policies may be more detrimental than the actual drug itself in destabilizing communities,” said Ald. Ashanti Hamilton.

That’s why Hamilton and Ald. Nik Kovac are trying to ignite a conversation about decriminalizing marijuana. They say that it’s time to rethink Milwaukee’s current marijuana ordinance so that it doesn’t contribute to the city’s racial disparities and create more problems than it’s supposed to solve.

“The political winds are blowing in favor of legalization but that doesn’t mean anything if laws are on the books and are still being enforced by the police,” Kovac told the Shepherd.


African Americans Cited More Often


Milwaukee’s current marijuana ordinance targets those who possess less than 25 grams of pot—less than a baggie—and it’s their first ticket for pot possession. Those who are caught with more pot, or are repeat offenders, are sent to state court and charged under state statutes.

Last year alone, 1,255 tickets written under Milwaukee’s pot possession ordinance were issued to African Americans, according to data provided by Kovac. Just 249 white people were ticketed last year.

That tremendous racial disparity exists even though there are roughly the same number of white and African American Milwaukeeans and it’s generally acknowledged that black people are not any more likely to use marijuana than white people.

“The heart of the issue is that small-scale possession prosecutions have huge racial disparities,” Hamilton said. “It’s been a major hit to the African American community, particularly black males.”

But the problem doesn’t end there. The ordinance includes a $250-$500 fine; failure to pay it can result in jail for up to 20 days, although the typical stint in jail is usually four days for a fine of this level.

“Four days in jail doesn’t sound like a whole lot, but it’s enough to make you lose your job or possibly your child,” said Molly Collins, associate director of the ACLU of Wisconsin. “It can come with really strong penalties that aren’t necessarily given to you by the judge. From having spent a few days in jail you’ll wind up with a host of problems.”

While the current ordinance allows the judge to offer community service to an individual ticketed for possessing pot, Marilyn Walczak of the Justice Initiatives Institute says that this option often isn’t offered to low-income residents in Milwaukee’s municipal court. While circuit court judges follow guidelines to determine if someone is indigent and can’t pay a fine, municipal court judges have total discretion over this decision, Walczak said. In addition, defendants in municipal court don’t have a right to an attorney, nor are public defenders allowed to represent someone in this venue, even though they may be working with that individual on other matters in circuit court.

“If you don’t say anything about your ability to pay, then the judge will not know about it,” Walczak said.

Hamilton told the Shepherd that many people who have been jailed under this ordinance told him that they didn’t even know that community service was an option.

He said its enforcement is contributing to the city’s already problematic racial disparities. Poor black city residents wind up getting locked up for the same activities that aren’t even considered to be a crime when white people engage in them.

“In lot of suburban communities, marijuana possession isn’t considered to be the major violation that it is in urban areas, or you just pay the fine if you’re ticketed and that’s the end of it,” Hamilton said. “But when you’re poor, now you’ve got a warrant out for you. Now your life is being disrupted.”


Reduce the Fine


Kovac and Hamilton’s solution is to keep the ordinance on the books but to lower the fine for first-time, nonviolent, small-scale marijuana possession to between $1 and $5, a nominal fine that would make one’s inability to pay a nonfactor and put an end to the policy of incarcerating people simply for being poor. Subsequent violations would continue to be sent to the circuit court for prosecution. The aldermen hope to hold Common Council committee hearings on their proposal early next year.

“I’m not under any illusion that this going to end the drug war nationally or locally but America finally seems to be ready to at least end prohibition and this is a step in that direction,” Kovac said.

But Kovac and Hamilton’s proposal seems to be at philosophical odds with a law passed by the Republican-led Legislature last year that enhances municipalities’ ability to prosecute low-level marijuana offenses that district attorneys see as a waste of their time and resources. The law was pushed as a way to move second drug offenses back into municipal court, but Walczak said her preliminary research indicated that local municipalities are not using the law to prosecute additional drug offenders.

Kovac argued that decriminalizing small-scale marijuana possession would not only free up police resources but also help to reduce violence without costing a dime. He said he’d like to see the full legalization and regulation of all drugs to enhance public safety and allocate police resources properly.

“How do we not recognize that one of the main causes of urban street violence is the fact that drugs are illegal?” Kovac said. “When two different beer companies have a dispute to sell beer in a particular location or there’s a violation of contract, they hire lawyers. When two marijuana dealers have a dispute they can’t hire a lawyer so they buy guns instead. So people are dying because we are trying to arrest nonviolent drug offenders and we’re turning nonviolent offenders into violent offenders. There’s no question that we are making violence even worse.”

Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn wasn’t available for comment, but in the past he’s been fairly neutral about not wanting to lock up nonviolent marijuana offenders simply for holding small amounts of pot in the privacy of their own home.

Hamilton, too, stressed the proposed ordinance’s role in making Milwaukee safer.

“Let’s put forward policies that actually make our community safer, as opposed to advancing policies that destabilize our community,” Hamilton said.


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