Committee Okays Referendum on Legalizing Pot
Unanimous vote in favor of November referendum asking to legalize and tax marijuana.
The committee on Judiciary, Safety and General Services then voted unanimously in favor of a resolution to include a referendum item on the November election ballot asking whether to allow adults 21 years of age and older to engage in the personal use of marijuana, while also regulating commercial marijuana-related activities, and imposing a tax on the sale of marijuana. The resolution was authored by Supervisor John Weishan, and now heads to the full board for consideration later this month.
Sup. Deanna Alexander voted in favor of the resolution, though not before she attempted to pass an amendment that would put it on the ballot during the August election. Sup. Steven Shea and Sup. Sylvia Ortiz-Velez voiced opposition to this move because of the historically low voter turnout during the August primary elections. The amendment failed on a four-to-one vote, with only Alexander supporting.
The vast majority of those in attendance at the meeting were there to tell their representatives they want legal marijuana and they want this referendum. Well, save for one man who told the committee he thought the legality of using and possessing marijuana was not an issue the state should have domain over in the first place, and therefore he didn’t support the referendum.
But the state still has hard laws on the books for marijuana. Like the rule that a second conviction for marijuana possession is an automatic felony. And once convicted of a felony, individuals lose the right to vote, travel outside the country and own or possess a firearm. And these rights are often accompanied by a host of other troubles that can include difficulty finding employment or permanently being barred from certain jobs.
Sup. Supreme Moore Omokunde told the committee he would also be bringing forward a resolution that calls on the state to decriminalize marijuana. He called for what he termed “retroactive decriminalization” — to apply a new standard of the law to those already convicted of marijuana offense and forgive those crimes.
“When you look at the racial disparities, African Americans are six times more likely to be arrested and imprisoned for marijuana,” Moore noted.
Gretchen Schuldt, executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative, also presented these statistics up to the committee, noting that in Milwaukee the arrest rate for black residents compared to white residents was nine to one, and most of the arrests were made in the city of Milwaukee, north of I-94.
“Apparently people on the south sides and the suburbs do not smoke marijuana,” she said, prompting a chorus of laughter from the room.
One woman that spoke at the hearing told the committee members that she served two years in prison for growing two marijuana plants in her home, which she said were for personal use. As a result she lost her nursing license and has struggled to find employment. She now operates a business selling cannabidiol, or CBD, a non-psychoactive derivative of industrial hemp that can be used to treat seizure patients.
Others spoke about the medical benefits, or at least their preference over pharmaceuticals, of marijuana. One man explained that he is a survivor of a traumatic brain injury and cannot function on a day-to-day basis without marijuana. Others pointed to the relative harmlessness of marijuana compared to the opioids they were prescribed for pain.
Many that spoke to the committee were animated with anger that local schools lack the funding they need and that obvious failures of infrastructure maintenance abound, like Milwaukee’s potholed roads; all while state and local governments use taxpayers’ money to arrest and incarcerate marijuana users.
Serendipitously, right after the committee voted on the referendum resolution, and as the crowd poured out of the committee room, they heard a report from Joe Lamers, budget director for the county, on how much it costs to jail a person for one day in the House of Correction, that’s $40.45, and the Criminal Justice Facility, that’s $42.83. Take the cheaper option, the House of Correction: it costs $283 a week, $1,132 a month and $13,591 annually to incarcerate someone. Now, extrapolate those numbers out to those incarcerated for marijuana offenses, and you start to see the source of the legalization advocates’ indignation.
A 2016 Marquette Law School poll found that 59 percent of the Wisconsin residents supported legalization and state regulation of marijuana.
Weishan said this referendum is a move to get the ball rolling on the topic of marijuana prohibition, to “create the momentum so we get people in Madison to actually do their job and do something for the citizens in the state of Wisconsin, and that is finally to legalize and decriminalize marijuana.”
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