Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Committee Okays $1 Fine For Pot Possession

Under state law county can't fully decriminalize. Full board next considers proposal.

By - Mar 16th, 2021 11:01 am
A joint. Pixabay License Free for commercial use No attribution required

A joint. (Pixabay License).

The Milwaukee County Board will soon vote on a resolution that would take the county as close to decriminalization of marijuana as it can legally go.

Sup. Sylvia Ortiz-Velez sponsored a resolution that would cut the fine for marijuana possession up to 25 grams on county property to $1. The fine is currently between $250 and $500.

Ortiz-Velez supports full decriminalization and legalization of marijuana, but under state law the county lacks the power to do this. The board only has power over county law enforcement, which involves only arrests by the Milwaukee County Sheriffs Office, which often occur on county property. Even so, there were 257 citations for marijuana possession by deputy sheriffs in 2019, according to Ortiz-Velez.

The supervisor told the board’s Judiciary, Safety and General Services Committee Thursday, March 11, that “a huge amount of false propaganda has been drilled into American minds,” in order to keep marijuana illegal. She said that decriminalizing marijuana could allow those suffering from opiate addiction to safely access it, potentially helping them battle the addiction.

Ortiz-Velez’s south-side, city-based district is ground zero for the opioid epidemic locally. The 53215 zip code that encompasses her district had the most drug overdoses in Milwaukee last year.

Her resolution is also the most the county can do to reduce the burden of criminal penalties and fines faced by people who use marijuana. She noted that many veterans use marijuana to self-medicate for PTSD and that under current laws they are criminalized for this.

Also at issue is the deeply unequal racial enforcement of marijuana laws. Black people in Wisconsin are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, despite comparable rates of use, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union.

When Ortiz-Velez began her discussion of the resolution at the committee, she implored all her fellow supervisors to consider “the opportunity to make decisions that can protect the health and welfare of the people we serve.”

At least one supervisor, though, would rather wait for the state government to change marijuana laws.

Sup. Patti Logsdon is opposed to the proposal and plans to introduce an amended resolution that would only change the penalty for possession of medical marijuana, which is not currently legal in Wisconsin. “Because it is an illegal drug I would say that we need to just consider it an illegal drug and maybe we need to make this motion after, or have this come up after marijuana is legalized by the state of Wisconsin,” she said.

Corporation Counsel Margaret Daun said the amendment discussed by Logsdon would create some concerns for her office, largely because medical marijuana isn’t legal in Wisconsin. She said using that general language would be “insufficiently specific.”

Ted Chisholm, chief of staff for Milwaukee County Sheriff Earnell Lucas, said the Sheriff’s Office did not have a “formal position” on the resolution. Though he did say, “We do not oppose efforts to decriminalize marijuana and reduce penalties so as to alleviate the disparate impact that enforcement has historically had from a perspective of racial inequity.”

The Sheriff’s Office, he added, would not lose the ability to enforce the marijuana ordinance “in an egregious situation where perhaps there’s use taking place in a location or a context where it’s inappropriate or it’s generating a public safety concern.”

The resolution passed the committee on a four-to-one vote, with only Logsdon voting no. The full board will likely vote on the resolution during their meeting at the end of the month.

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