Today, Democrats at the state capitol announced a package of bills that would decriminalize marijuana possession up to 28 grams — almost an ounce of weed.
State Representative Shelia Stubbs of Madison is a co-author of the bills. She says the current laws are leading to the mass incarceration of black men.
“African-American men have been disproportionately charged and imprisoned for low level marijuana possession. [That] is something we must urgently address,” says Stubbs.
Stubbs says there are three objectives of the bills: to decriminalize the possession of about an ounce or less of marijuana, to eliminate the smell of weed as probable cause for law enforcement to search belongings, and to expunge or dismiss convictions of folks who were previously convicted of low-level marijuana possession.
State Representative David Crowley of Milwaukee, another co-author of the bills, says that Wisconsin is one of the worst places to raise a black family and one of the reasons is inequality in the justice system.
“Right here in Dane County, black men have been locked up for drug offenses nearly 100 times more than their white counterparts, even though studies show that cannabis usage is the same among white and black people,” Crowley says.
“Even more troubling, studies show that the disparity is growing — it’s not getting smaller,” Crowley adds.
The new laws would allow folks serving a sentence, or who are on probation for marijuana possession, to petition to remove their conviction; but, they would have to prove the conviction involved possession of less than 28 grams of marijuana.
Crowley says that would provide a path for folks to clear their records. He argues that “one of the biggest hurdles to employment is a criminal record.”
“That can lead to an endless cycle of joblessness, homelessness, and a possibility of even more criminal activity. This bill should have been passed years ago, but thanks to the inaction of Republican leadership here in Madison, we are an island of antiquated drug policies in a sea of decriminalization. Everybody has decriminalized marijuana that touches our border — almost everybody,” he says.
In Wisconsin you can face up to 6 months in prison for possessing any amount of marijuana. If you are caught a second time, you could be charged with a felony and face three and a half years.
While possession of marijuana is illegal in Wisconsin, possession of small amounts are decriminalized in the city of Madison and the city of Milwaukee. And Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne says law enforcement shouldn’t bring him any cases of possession under 4 ounces.
All the states surrounding Wisconsin have lighter punishments for possession — or no punishment at all.
Iowa has not decriminalized marijuana, but you won’t get a felony charge for possession. In Minnesota, possession of less than an ounce and a half carries at most a two hundred dollar fine. In Michigan, you can have two and half ounces of marijuana with no risk of a fine at all, and earlier this summer, Illinois lawmakers approved a plan to legalize up to 30 grams of marijuana and pardon or expunge convictions of up to 500 grams.
Legal sales in Illinois will begin at the start of next year.
Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes supports the package of bills. He says a change to the law is a necessary step.
“It’s a shame because marijuana, again, is not a reason to serve a prison sentence,” says Barnes.
“Marijuana is not a reason to lose out on a job or a place to live. It is not a reason to lose on an opportunity to go to school or get financial aid. And marijuana is not a reason that anybody should lose their voting rights. Simply put, marijuana use and its possession is a victimless crime and in Wisconsin, people’s livelihoods are being taken for it. It falls in line with a truly unjust system designed to harm people,” Barnes adds.
This is not the first time Wisconsin lawmakers have considered decriminalizing marijuana . In 2015, Barnes introduced a bill on April 20th — that’s 4/20 — to the State Assembly. His bill decriminalized possession under 25 grams.
Again, lawmakers had a chance to decriminalize weed in amounts of under 25 grams with Governor Evers proposed budget this year. Barnes said that Republican lawmakers voted against the will of a majority of Wisconsin residents when they took decriminalization out of the budget.
The two top Republican lawmakers in the state legislature have opposed decriminalization.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has said he’s been open to legalizing medical marijuana for several years.
In an interview with Channel 3000 yesterday, Vos said he was open to medical marijunana in pill form.
“For me it shouldn’t be smoked, it should be taken in pill form. It shouldn’t even be edible so a child could get at it,” says Vos.
But Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has said he opposes legalization.
Alan Robinson is the director of the Wisconsin Chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML. He says folks in Wisconsin want weed to be legal or decriminalized.
“The thing is, the people are not asking for Robin Vos’s permission to use cannabis. They are asking to be left alone to grow and use cannabis in peace,” Robinson argues.
A Marquette Law School poll in April found that 59 percent of voters say marijuana use should be legal, and 36 percent say it should be illegal.
Democratic State Senator Fred Risser of Madison, Representative Dave Considine of Baraboo, and Representative David Crowley of Milwaukee co authored the bills.