Milwaukee Lawmakers Plan Another Go At Unifying Pot Possession Fines
Report shows a patchwork of marijuana fines in Milwaukee County. Would require city to raise its fine.
State Senator Lena Taylor and Representative Sylvia Ortiz-Velez plan to reintroduce a bill that had bipartisan sponsorship and support in the Wisconsin State Legislature. The City of Milwaukee, however, was opposed because it would actually require the city to raise its fine.
In addition, it would reduce the charges for possession of 14 to 28 grams to a class B misdemeanor, even when the individual has a prior conviction for marijuana possession. Counties would also retain the ability to regulate possession at that level with a municipal fine. This would eliminate the ability of district attorneys to charge an individual with a felony for marijuana possession of 28 grams or less. The bill also limits the liability of employers that don’t test for marijuana.
“This builds a framework to actually say we know that [simple marijuana possession] doesn’t rise to a felonious act,” Ortiz-Velez told Urban Milwaukee.
The amount of marijuana that would be controlled by the bill is small, the representative said. For many, marijuana and cannabis are used medicinally, even if the state doesn’t legally recognize their use in this manner, Ortiz-Velez said. And currently, there is no limit on what local municipalities can fine someone for possession.
“We have counties and cities are doing things that are very vastly different,” Ortiz-Velez said. “And what it creates is a patchwork of laws throughout our state.”
In Milwaukee County, there is a wide spectrum of fines that residents can face, depending on what municipal boundary they’re in when they’re charged with possession.
The LRB notes that most municipalities do not set specific fines, rather, “municipal codes generally impose a wide forfeiture range, plus court costs, that applies to various ordinance violations, including possession of marijuana under 25 grams.”
This leaves penalizing marijuana possession largely up to a handful of municipal officials in the county.
In 2021, Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office released a report analyzing 10 years of marijuana-related convictions across the state. The report showed that much of the change in marijuana enforcement over the past decade has occurred only in Milwaukee and Dane counties. What’s more, convictions of Black residents were driven by counties outside of Milwaukee County, despite the majority of the state’s Black population living there, thereby demonstrating the ongoing racial inequality in marijuana enforcement.
Ortiz-Velez noted that criminal convictions serve as barriers to important human needs like housing and employment, and the disparities in marijuana convictions underline how drug laws contribute to ongoing racial disparities and inequality in Wisconsin. “It disproportionately affects people of color, but it also disproportionately affects poor people,” Ortiz-Velez said.
The legislation has experienced some resistance from Democratic politicians, though. Specifically, those from the City of Milwaukee where the bill would have the effect of raising marijuana fines under 14 grams. The city’s current fine is a maximum of $5o for possession of 25 grams or less.
A majority of the Milwaukee Common Council released a statement saying they were “troubled” by the legislation and that it “would make things much worse here in Milwaukee.”
“So what we’re getting for what we’re losing, it’s worth it” Ortiz-Velez said. “It’s worth it.”
Read the LRB Milwaukee County marijuana fines report on Urban Milwaukee.
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