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Time to Decriminalize Pot in Wisconsin

Aug. 29, 2017
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It’s time to drive a blunt through the heart of the law that makes possessing marijuana a felony in Wisconsin. It’s a mean-spirited law that is unfairly enforced, does nothing to protect public safety and destroys life chances for anyone charged with it. It creates felons out of people who would be perfectly law-abiding citizens in several other states. And, it’s a waste of taxpayer money.

In Milwaukee County, the overwhelming majority of defendants in felony marijuana cases are African American males who are arrested in the city north of I-94. A lot of these arrests come after traffic stops for things like illegally tinted windows or not wearing a seat belt. An officer approaches the car, smells marijuana, searches and bingo! 

District Attorney John Chisholm is not a fan of the second offense felony marijuana law. His office generally charges it when there are extenuating circumstances, such as a previous felony or some indicator of violence or potential violence, such as the presence of a gun at the time of arrest, he said in an interview. But Chisholm’s office can only review the cases the police send it and those cases begin with cops making stops on the street. And for whatever reason, despite the prevalence of white people in Milwaukee County (comprising 65% of the population), it is mostly black people (27% of the population) who end up facing second offense felony marijuana charges.

The Wisconsin Justice Initiative is mapping arrest locations and providing offense details included in criminal complaints filed in second offense felony marijuana cases. Of the first 30 cases reviewed, all filed in 2016, 87% involved black defendants, 97% involved male defendants and 77% stemmed from the area of Milwaukee north of I-94. That’s a small sample size, but the numbers are very telling.

So, what are we to conclude? That black women don’t smoke marijuana? That cars south of I-94 don’t have illegally tinted windows? That the marijuana white people have in their cars doesn’t smell enough to alert police to its presence? Or, is it that black men are disproportionately targeted for stops and thus far more likely to wind up in the system for violating this antiquated law?

The law leads to absurd scenarios. Let’s say a person with a misdemeanor record for marijuana walks down the street brandishing a loaded 9-milimeter handgun. In his front pocket is a single blunt (a “blunt” is a hollowed-out cigar or cigarette filled with marijuana). The felony here is the pot, not the gun. The state has some weird priorities. 

Wisconsin is falling behind other states with its criminal treatment of marijuana. California, Massachusetts, Maine, Nevada, Alaska, Oregon, Washington and Colorado are all at least partway toward implementing legal recreational marijuana use. Medical marijuana is legal in more than half the states. And, of course, there is money involved. Marijuana-legal states are making it; Wisconsin is wasting it. Colorado—the first state to legalize recreational weed—has pulled in about $506 million so far since retail selling began in 2014, according to CNN. Marijuana tax revenue hit $256 million in Washington in 2016 and $60 million in Oregon. Instead, in Wisconsin, tax dollars are thrown at enforcing the felony marijuana possession law: for the cost of police, jails, judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers for the indigent and probation and parole officers.

A bill introduced in the state legislature would allow first and second offenses for possession of small amounts of marijuana to be treated as municipal violations, punishable by forfeitures of up to $100. Currently, that bill sits in committee, waiting for Wisconsin to catch up to the 21st century.

Gretchen Schuldt is the executive director of Wisconsin Justice Initiative, which strives to improve the quality of justice in Wisconsin by educating the public about legal issues and encourages civic engagement in and debate about the state’s judicial system and its operation.

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