Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service

City Considers Lowering Penalties for Marijuana

Study shows 86% of those convicted of pot possession are African American.

By , Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service - May 31st, 2015 02:37 pm
Alderman Michael Murphy listens to Rob Henken, president of the Public Policy Forum, present findings from a new report on marijuana laws. Photo by Edgar Mendez

Alderman Michael Murphy listens to Rob Henken, president of the Public Policy Forum, present findings from a new report on marijuana laws. Photo by Edgar Mendez

In 1997 Alderman Michael Murphy drafted Milwaukee’s current ordinance making first-time possession of less than 25 grams of marijuana a municipal offense rather than a state charge.

“There was a (racial) disparity back then that was pretty relevant,” he said.

The racial disparity in marijuana convictions remains extraordinarily high, according to a new report by the Public Policy Forum (PPF), which was presented to the Common Council’s Public Safety Committee Thursday. The report found that in 2013 and 2014, 86 percent of those found guilty in Milwaukee County of a second or subsequent marijuana offense were African American. The second state conviction is a felony.

Alderman Joe Davis, Sr. makes a point during a discussion of options to change marijuana laws and policies. Photo by Edgar Mendez.

Alderman Joe Davis, Sr. makes a point during a discussion of options to change marijuana laws and policies. Photo by Edgar Mendez.

According to the report, very few Milwaukeeans end up in jail for a first-time marijuana possession offense, but the second and subsequent convictions are referred to the district attorney for state charges and often result in incarceration.

Eighty-six percent of Milwaukee County cases that are prosecuted by the district attorney resulted in a felony conviction. Of the 275 defendants in 2013 and 2014, 274 were sentenced to serve time in jail or state prison. A 2014 NNS report found that marijuana possession convictions are a key contributor to racial disparity in the state’s prison system.

The Common Council convened earlier this month to discuss possible changes to marijuana laws. One option the council is considering, authored by Ald. Nic Kovac, is to lower the punishment for possessing less than 25 grams of marijuana to a municipal offense and a $50 ticket. Currently, marijuana possession tickets are $250 to $500. State Rep. Melissa Sargent recently re-introduced legislation to legalize medicinal and recreational use of marijuana in Wisconsin.

The PPF report also examined other municipalities that have recently changed their laws or policies related to marijuana possession. According to Rob Henken, president of the Public Policy Forum, the state recently passed legislation paving the way for municipalities to begin enacting their own marijuana ordinances. So far, only West Allis has moved to make second and subsequent marijuana offenses municipal offenses punishable by fines.

Another issue in Milwaukee is that there are few options available to the district attorney, according to the report. “There simply aren’t treatment options that exist for marijuana as opposed to other drugs,” Henken said.

The report made no policy change recommendations. However, it did state that “de-prioritization, decriminalization, or full de-penalization could dramatically reduce the number of African Americans who are being arrested on small-scale marijuana possession charges and the number of disadvantaged individuals whose ability to find and retain jobs is being impacted by time spent in jail or the existence of a marijuana-related criminal charge on their record.”

Molly Collins, associate director of the ACLU of Wisconsin, said the report’s findings are consistent with what the ACLU has long been saying about the racial disparity in marijuana arrests, adding, “These criminal convictions are resulting in jail, trouble finding employment and disrupting other aspects of people’s lives.” The ACLU has been working to decriminalize marijuana.

The Common Council will take up Kovac’s proposed marijuana possession ordinance at the June 2 meeting of the council.

This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee.

42 thoughts on “City Considers Lowering Penalties for Marijuana”

  1. ++Brian_Kelly++ says:

    Don’t be fooled by “decriminalization” because citizens are still going to be treated like common criminals for marijuana under it. This is what Kevin Sabet wants.

    Citizens will STILL be forced to the dangerous black market and a shady illegal street drug dealer to purchase their marijuana. Getting caught buying it is STILL a crime they will arrest and jail you for. Then, they will also most likely try to FORCE you to either mandatory community service and/or rehab, and if you don’t comply, guess what? JAILTIME!

    They also fail to mention the additional huge cost of court costs which can range from several hundred to several thousand dollars on top of the relatively small ticket/fine.

    If you fail to pay these expensive court costs you will be in “the system” as a criminal. With a warrant out for your arrest and incarceration.

    No thanks!

    Also, we will still be wasting our tax dollars sending police around to ticket marijuana users and wasting police manpower and resources.

    Instead of allowing our police the time, manpower and resources to protect us all from real, dangerous criminals who actually commit crimes with victims and pose a real threat to society.

    Why else do you think some politicians are so EAGER to “decriminalize”, instead of LEGALIZE?

    Don’t Let’em Fool Us!!!

    If you can’t purchase it legally, then it isn’t legal.

    If you have to fear a monetary fine/ticket which if you don’t pay and/or show up in court to handle, you then become a criminal with a warrant out for your arrest, and when convicted (yes convicted, as in crime.) you will then be forced into free manual labor and/or forced drug rehabilitation to be used as another statistic prohibitionists love to flaunt about supposed “marijuana addicts”, then….No, it’s not legal!

    This will not suffice! Getting caught purchasing marijuana is still considered a serious “drug deal” and you will be prosecuted for it!


  2. SAM S U C K S says:

    SAM is a Nazi organization dedicated to the arrest, incarceration and re-education of peaceful marijuana consumers.
    Kevin Sabet is a ugly stupid S C U M B A G….

  3. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    History throughout the world shows that increased pot, and other drug use destroys society. But, jailing people for small amounts of pot is not valuable, so a policy that fits this mold is what works. Sales of illegal drugs deserves jail. even Leftwing governor Jerry Brown is opposed to legalizing pot as they already have big problems and Co. has big problem.

  4. John Casper says:

    WI CON digest,

    You’re not a conservative.

    The prohibition against marijuana is a textbook example of a job-killing-government regulation, but Big Pharma lines both parties with plenty of cash to keep it illegal. Their meds are the biggest loser if it’s legalized. “The Smoke and Mirrors of the Legalization Debate”

    I would never encourage anyone to use pot, other than for medicinal purposes, but the prohibition against alcohol didn’t work either.

    Sen. Cruz has joined Sen. Rand Paul in supporting legalization, because their base is demanding legalization.

    “Ted Cruz’s Cannabis Conversion Reflects The Political Prudence Of Marijuana Federalism”

    Hemp would bring additional economic benefits, “Mitch McConnell’s Love Affair with Hemp: How the Kentucky senator picked a fight with the DEA and became one of Washington’s top drug policy reformers.”

    Properly administered, legalization would jump start Milwaukee’s urban agriculture. Legalization would defund the drug gangs. State and local budgets need the tax revenue.

  5. AG says:

    So that’s great if some people wish to fight for the legalization of Marijuana for medicinal or recreational use… that’s one’s right to make the attempt. However, until they are successful, a persons best option to avoid any consequences for possessing or using it would be to… well, not possess or use it. Fear not being able to get a job? Don’t want to go to Jail? Think the fine is too high? Then don’t partake.

  6. John Casper says:

    AG, are you President Obama?

    All you have to do to avoid prison is work on Wall Street.

    “The Wall Street bonus pool for last year is roughly double the total earnings of all Americans who work full time at the federal minimum wage?”

    “…Let’s start with the Wall Street bonuses. The New York State Comptroller reported on Wednesday that the size of the bonus pool paid to securities industries employees in New York City was $28.5 billion. Dividing this total among 167,800 workers yields an average bonus of $172,860, which seems plausible enough. For sure, some received much, much bigger bonuses, and many received nothing.

    What about the total earnings of full-time workers at the federal minimum wage? The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there are 1.03 million full-time workers paid an hourly wage of $7.25 or less. These people tend to work around 40 hours a week on average. If they all earn $7.25 per hour and work 50 weeks per year, the total earnings of this group come to nearly $15 billion. Ms. Anderson, whose report usefully shows all her work, prefers an estimate of 37 hours per week — which looks too low to me based on other data — and 52 weeks per year, so after rounding, she gets to a total of $14 billion.

  7. Paul says:

    AG, I agree with you, if you don’t want the penalties that come with doing something illegal, don’t do it. John Casper, what the hell are you talking about, are you high now?

  8. John Casper says:

    Paul, which part didn’t you understand?

  9. Paul says:

    John, what does the Wall Street bonuses have to do with this at all? The answer is nothing

  10. AG says:

    Paul, don’t bother. John Casper’s lack of discussing the topic tells us more than if he had actually responded with an argument.

  11. PMD says:

    Yes, yes if you don’t want fines or jail, don’t do something illegal. But that doesn’t lessen the need for reform. I’d like to see lesser penalties for marijuana possession and stiffer penalties for DUIs, especially those that involve deaths. Just this year, in Wisconsin, someone got more prison time for killing a dog than someone else did for killing two people while driving drunk. I cannot wrap my head around that. Just insane.

  12. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    I have worked on this for 50 years, drugs, addictions and their consequences. WE do not need to put people in jail for smoking a little pot as long as they are not dealers. Dealers never deal in just pot. heroin is the big problem right now. Once you become a heroin addict just like an alcoholic, you are addict, alcoholic for life. Ask Phillip Seymour Hoffmann, but the inner city drug problem is killing society, so while we do not need to put people in jail for smoking a little we must do everything that we can to dissuade people from going next step.

  13. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    PMD you made sense for once.

  14. PMD says:

    Hey even a broken clock is right twice a day.

  15. Casey says:

    And the end times must be near….PMD & WCD have just agreed.

    I’m going for a walk.

  16. AG says:

    Casey, I was thinking the same thing… a true sign of the apocalypse.

  17. PMD says:

    It’s actually not the first time we’ve agreed on something, but yes, you should all start building bunkers in your backyard after making a trip to Costco or Sam’s Club for supplies.

  18. John Casper says:

    Paul, AG, are you two separate nanny-state’rs, or just the same big, intrusive gov’t loving guy using two different handles?

    Since he’s a conservative, I’m sure you’ve never heard of Grover Norquist.

    “Criminal justice reform is a conservative issue”

    “On the other hand, my life’s work has been about maximizing individual liberty. How should liberty-minded folks look at the criminal justice system, and how should we treat all the rest of the criminals who will come back to society sooner or later?

    Draconian punishments for minor infractions, an ever-expanding prisoner population and a legal regime that allows authorities to seize property without a warrant are all slowly eroding the freedoms that the nation has come to expect. For years, lawmakers have focused almost exclusively on being “tough on crime,” all the while forgetting to get “smart on crime.”

    Even as crime rates across the country continue to fall, American prison populations have increased to levels not seen in any other developed country. Between 2000 and 2012 the national prison population shot up from 1.4 million to 1.6 million according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Of that number, 16% were incarcerated for non-violent drug-related charges.

  19. AG says:

    John, the only political ideology I’m beholden to is my own.

    First, thank you for pointing out that higher prison populations and lower crime are occuring at the same time. I think that’s a good thing.

    Regarding the current topic, I just don’t see many benefits to legalizing pot or any drug for that matter. If you’d like to work on changing the sentencing from one of jail time to possibly drug treatment, I’d get behind that. However, as far as I’m concerned, if marijuana is not addictive then one can easily choose not to break the law and avoid using it all together. Consequences avoided, good job non-user.

    As if this is a huge problem anyway. 16% of the prison population is for non-violent drug offenses? Good. Did you know that of that 16%, only 12% (federal) and 12.7% (state) of that were related to marijuana? Did you also know that only half of that 12 or 12.7% were actually drug users? Meaning the other half were dealers or trafficking?

    So half of 12% of 16% of overall prison populations. How many does that actually mean? That’d be around 22,500 people across the entire country are actually serving time in prison for possession of marijuana… and no way to tell if that’s concurrent with other charges.

    To further press the point that this isn’t a big deal… this very article points out that only 274 people in a two year period were actually prosecuted for multiple offense possession. That means almost a million other people in the county found a way to avoid this.

    I think the discussion about increasing the penalties for driving while intoxicated is a far more productive conversation.

  20. PMD says:

    “I think the discussion about increasing the penalties for driving while intoxicated is a far more productive conversation.”

    I’m with you AG. It’s depressing how little progress has been made here, and how little will there seems to be to make meaningful changes. You can’t even go a few days here without reading about the arrest of a 7 or 8-time DUI offender or a fatal crash caused by a drunk driver.

  21. John Casper says:

    AG, your interpretation of “First, thank you for pointing out that higher prison populations and lower crime are occuring (sic) at the same time. I think that’s a good thing.” is wrong.

    Your DOJ link is for the prison population in 2004.

    “Bank Of America Dumps $75 Trillion In Derivatives On U.S. Taxpayers With Federal Approval”

    To put $75 trillion in perspective, US GDP in 2012 was around $16.5 trillion. We blew a lot more than the $6 trillion they’re claiming in Iraq and Afghanistan. Social Security’s Trust Fund is around $2.3 trillion. Bank of America is just one Wall Street bank. They all have derivative exposure. I’ve seen estimates of $700 trillion, but I don’t think anyone knows.

    When will Obama’s DOJ indict the elites, and the Wall Street CEO’s, who enabled their looting of the 99.99%?

  22. PMD says:

    So John are you saying that we should be outraged that people are being imprisoned for drug use while no one from Wall St. has been tried for helping cause the 2008 financial crisis?

  23. AG says:

    John Casper, just because we’ve hit the wall in as far as how “tough on crime” we can get to see a positive gain, doesn’t mean it didn’t have an appreciable when first enacted. Gains we may lose if you want to revert to pre-tough on crime policies.

    Yes, I know those numbers were from 2004. Do you think they’ve changed that much since then?

    I’d love to have a separate conversation about Wall Street… you may be surprised that we can find common ground there. What does that have to do with your weed habit?

  24. John Casper says:

    PMD, yes. No Wall Street CEO’s even been indicted. On those rare occasions when DOJ does prosecute, it’s always some one way down the food chain. IMHO, that’s why you see headline-grabbing DOJ sports prosecutions of FIFA, Bonds/steroids….. It’s a way to mask that the uber-wealthy criminals who have wrecked our economy go un-prosecuted. Sad that both parties have caved.

  25. AG says:

    Another cause far more worthy of our time and efforts.

  26. Paul says:

    John, I’m still waiting for you to explain what Wall Street bonuses have to do with this

  27. John Casper says:

    Paul, I’m sorry. I’m not qualified to teach Special Education.

    Capitalism runs on sales. The real “job creators” are consumers with money to spend.

    “As mass production has to be accompanied by mass consumption, mass consumption, in turn, implies a distribution of wealth, … to provide men (sic) with buying power. … Instead of achieving that kind of distribution, a giant suction pump, had by 1929 – 30 drawn into a few hands an increasing proportion of currently produced wealth … The other fellows could only stay in the game by borrowing. When their credit ran out, the game stopped.” –Marrineer Eccles

    Best of luck to you.

  28. Paul says:

    John, I’m sorry but I’m not able to understand jibberish. Lower penalties for pot in Milwaukee has nothing at all to do with Wall Street bonuses.

  29. AG says:

    Everyone who uses marijuana and other illegal substances should look into the situation that’s happening in Mexico near the border. The lives lost, families destroyed, women raped and kidnapped, innocent people’s lives lost and ruined… all because some American’s want to get their buzz on.

    I understand people think that if it were legal much of the drug trade would diminish. However, it’s not legal right now, and every time you purchase illegal drugs you’re contributing to the devastation seen in these areas. Our aldermen are more concerned with a few pot smokers in Milwaukee though who believe they aren’t hurting anyone. They were elected to represent Milwaukee residents though, not Mexican… so can you blame them?

  30. PMD says:

    AG do you only buy American so that you never contribute to the devastation in nations with child labor?

  31. John Casper says:



    Great idea. Bring back the prohibition of alcohol.

    “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition”

    Bring back the Chicago beer wars, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

    And since alcohol is made from sugar, sugar is the gateway drug! Jail anyone who eats Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes.


  32. AG says:

    I’m hoping those responses are only coming from a lack of understanding of what is going on down there. Otherwise I doubt the issue would be taken so lightly. I would guess most people who use the products controlled by these cartels lack a real understanding of it.

    It is frustrating to see some people decry ‘evil corporations’ in our county yet readily purchase the products of actual evil organizations that litterally kill thousands.

  33. PMD says:

    With tons of marijuana being produced every year in the U.S., mostly in California and a few other states, is every single person who buys some weed really directly responsible for contributing to all of the horrors taking place in Mexico? Then are we all contributing to children being abused in factories when we buy foreign-made T-shirts?

  34. John Casper says:


    With “friends” like you, capitalism doesn’t need enemies.

    At the heart of the FREE MARKETS is C-O-M-P-E-T-I-T-I-O-N.

    When the elites control both parties, as they do now, they legislate their monopolies/oligopolies to crush all competition. They only allow innovation that furthers their net income. It’s the proper role of government to maintain the conditions which promote competition and quality.

    “Economist George Akerlof wrote about “Gresham’s dynamic” in his famous 1970 article, “The Market for Lemons: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism.” This paper by discussed information asymmetry, which occurs when the seller knows more about a product than the buyer. (A lemon is a slang term for a car that is found to be defective only after it has been bought.) Later, Akerlof, Michael Spence, and Joseph Stiglitz jointly received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2001 for their research related to asymmetric information.
    In his paper, Akerlof wrote: “Dishonest dealings tend to drive honest dealings out of the market. The cost of dishonesty, therefore, lies not only in the amount by which the purchaser is cheated; the cost also must include the loss incurred from driving legitimate business out of existence.” Akerlof posited that Gresham’s Law – or Gresham’s Dynamic as he employed it and called it – wasn’t just related to money; it also applied to all businesses. In essence, businesses run with bad ethics tend to drive those who possess good ethics out of the market. Obviously, this is not the result our society desires. …

    The NYT’s Andrew Sorking is the ultimate water-carrier for Wall Street, so when he publishes on the lack of Wall Street ethics, “Many on Wall Street Say It Remains Untamed,”it’s newsworthy.

    “This year, the University of Notre Dame — on behalf of the law firm Labaton Sucharow — expanded its questionnaire to more than 1,200 traders, portfolio managers, investment bankers and hedge fund professionals both in the United States and Britain. Its results appear even more noteworthy today for the sheer number of individuals who continue to say the ethics of the industry remain unchanged since the crisis (a third said that, by the way).

    Every report has an asterisk of some sort and this one does, too: Although it was conducted by Notre Dame and surveyed a large number of people in the industry, it was paid for by Labaton Sucharow, a firm that often represents whistle-blowers in cases against the financial services firms.

    But if anything, the opinions expressed demonstrate that despite the very public campaign by the government to root out bad behavior in finance, it remains a problem that still deserves attention, notwithstanding the industry’s protestations that it has changed.

    “The pattern of bad behavior did not end with the financial crisis, but continued despite the considerable public sector intervention that was necessary to stabilize the financial system,” William C. Dudley, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, said in a speech late last year on Wall Street culture. “I reject the narrative that the current state of affairs is simply the result of the actions of isolated rogue traders or a few bad actors within these firms.”

    When it comes to “corporations” you obviously don’t understand how intrinsically counter to the principles of capitalism that “stock buy backs,” are.

    “How the stock market destroyed the middle class: Share buybacks encourage executives to loot companies, stall innovation and depress wages ”

    Per Gresham’s dynamic, however, since buy-backs are LEGAL, corporate CEO’s have to use them to inflate their stock price, because that’s the only way to keep their jobs.

    Vigorous anti-trust actions are needed to break up the monopolies and oligopolies that dominate the world economy.

  35. AG says:

    Last I saw, about 2/3rds of it comes in through Mexico. That’s pretty significant. In addition, usually when we find out about abuses of workers in other countries that are producing goods for American companies either the government or the buying public tend to hold them accountable (obviously not always… but I personally try to avoid those companies).

    Instead of actually addressing the topic, you and John both continually bring up other issues as if that makes it ok. Other wrongs in the world do not make it ok in my book.

  36. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    All addicts add to the problems throughout history, Most addicts, potheads, junkies have little knowledge of the history of addiction, Opium dens, growth of drugs since the 50’s, see Sinatra in: Man with the Golden arm, etc. They are all living in a fog of life that they ruin for themselves. Having worked in NHomes, rehab units for 50 years I can attest to the lives wasted by drugs.

  37. John Casper says:

    AG, you wrote, “last I saw, about 2/3rds of it comes in through Mexico.”

    In God we trust, all others bring links.

  38. PMD says:

    I thought I posted this but I don’t see it here. Anyway, not my intent AG. Just wondering how fair guilt by association is.

    As for production, a CNN story says Mexico produced 7,400 metric tons, while the United States cultivated 4,700 metric tons, but that was a while ago.

    Also, isn’t this good news?

  39. AG says:

    PMD, yes I believe there should be guilt felt by those who illegally purchase marijuana because it supports the killings, kidnappings, rapings, and utter destruction that the drug cartels bring.

    John Casper, I can’t really have a conversation with you if you keep going off topic. I’d love to have the conversation about gun control, wall street, animal abuse, drunk driving, global warming, and many more topics. However, the topic here is illegal drug use and how people decide to break the law, which ultimately has far greater consequences then you care to acknowledge.

  40. Kyle says:


    Allow me to help you out in your research:

    Hey look! Right at the top:

    Seriously, at least try. These conversation become unreadable when you spam a wall of irrelevant quotes and links. If you have an actual reason to disbelieve a number, then address that. Stop this “links or it didn’t happen” nonsense.

  41. PMD says:

    So if legalization increases the amount of marijuana production in the U.S., leading directly to a decrease in the amount of marijuana purchased from Mexico, isn’t that a good thing?

  42. Paul says:

    John…Still waiting for the answer. What do Wall Street bonuses have to do with lowering pot penalties in Milwaukee?

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