Matt Rothschild
Op Ed

Wisconsin is ‘Late to the Pot Party’

Marijuana prohibition currently produces racially disparate drug arrests, costs the state millions.

By - Feb 11th, 2021 12:01 pm
A joint. Pixabay License Free for commercial use No attribution required

A joint. (Pixabay License).

Gov. Tony Evers deserves our praise for trying to bring Wisconsin into the 21st century with his proposal to legalize marijuana.

On Sunday, Evers announced that legalizing marijuana would be part of his upcoming budget. He said it would “generate $165 million annually,” which would be a nice financial boost for the state.

And he wisely said that he would allocate almost half of that amount “to reinvest in communities across the state,” including underserved urban communities and rural school districts.

Evers understands that we are late to the pot party here in Wisconsin. “Red and blue states across the country have moved forward with legalization, and there is no reason Wisconsin should be left behind when we know it’s supported by a majority of Wisconsinites,” he said. 

Not only has Wisconsin fallen behind the times on legalization. We are also faring terribly on the metrics of racial equity.

An ACLU report released in 2020 found that Black people in Wisconsin are 4.24 times more likely than white people to be arrested for simple marijuana possession. 

“Marijuana enforcement has become a vehicle for law enforcement to target communities of color,” said Molly Collins, advocacy director of the ACLU of Wisconsin. “It’s past time to end the racially biased and wasteful war on marijuana in Wisconsin.”

The ACLU report noted that arrest rates increased 12.1% from 2010 to 2018 for marijuana possession in Wisconsin.

Worse still, four of the top 20 counties in the country for racial disparities in arrests are right here in Wisconsin: Ozaukee was fourth, Manitowoc was fifth, Washington was sixth, and Waukesha was 14th, according to the report.

The disparity in arrests is just the first in an ever-cascading disparity within our criminal justice system nationally. “Once arrested, people of color are also likely to be charged more harshly than white; once charged, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely to face stiff sentences,” according to the Sentencing Project.

So the effort by Evers to legalize marijuana would make a serious dent in the racial disparities that so mar Wisconsin’s criminal justice system.

As much as I salute the governor for this initiative, there are two other farsighted Wisconsinites who deserve our thanks on this issue.

One is state Sen. Melissa Agard, who has introduced a bill to legalize marijuana in every legislative session since 2013.

“The most dangerous thing about cannabis in Wisconsin is that it is illegal,” Agard said. “I am thrilled that Governor Evers has included this measure in his budget. At a time when we need to grow additional state revenue, this is the fiscally responsible decision for Wisconsin. At a time when we need to address our egregious racial disparities, this is the moral decision for Wisconsin. And at a time when our agricultural community needs a boost, this is the right statewide decision for Wisconsin.”

The other Wisconsinite is not with us any more, but for decades, he did more than anyone else in Wisconsin to highlight the folly of marijuana prohibition. I am speaking, of course, of Ben Masel, who died 10 years ago. 

For many years, Ben was the head of Wisconsin NORML, and he founded the Great Midwest Marijuana Harvest Festival, which is held annually at our state Capitol. A tireless campaigner and a marvelous trickster, he knew the day would come when Wisconsin finally would see the light on marijuana. 

Here’s an idea: Gov. Evers should name the legalization bill after Ben Masel. I can see Ben smirking now.

Matt Rothschild is the executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

Reprinted with permission of Wisconsin Examiner.

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