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Bipartisan Wisconsin Lawmakers Unveil Cannabis Reform Proposal
Wisconsin lawmakers recently unveiled a bipartisan bill to decriminalize marijuana statewide. The bill is not the first of its kind, but it benefits from the exceedingly rare support of some Republican politicians, setting it apart from the usual Democrat-led initiatives shunned by the Republican legislature.
Under this bill, possession of a personal-use amount of marijuana would be subjected to a fine of $100 for possessing 14 grams of marijuana or less. Municipalities would have some discretion, but they cannot enact a penalty lesser than $100 or greater than $250, or up to 40 hours of community service. Any amount greater than 14 grams could still be subjected to the current law.
Currently, Wisconsin law states that a first offense of possessing personal use amounts of marijuana can incur a fine up to $1,000 and six months of incarceration. A repeat offense is a felony and can be punished with three and a half years in prison and a $10,000 fine. This makes Wisconsin one of the worst locations in the United States in terms of personal use of marijuana.
Remove the Threat of Prison
Most importantly, the bill in question would eliminate counting for the purpose of determining whether there has been a repeat violation in cases where the amount seized is 28 grams or less. This would remove the threat of prison entirely from most low-level marijuana cases, statewide, and would turn thousands of serious offenses every year into slaps on the wrist.
As such, this proposal seems appealing, especially for Wisconsinites who live outside of the main centers of population, many of which have already enacted some form of decriminalization. As more and more localities have taken the initiative to enact cannabis reform without waiting for the regressive legislature, this bill aims to harmonize the law across the state. Co-author Rep. Sylvia Ortiz-Velez has argued in a press conference that marijuana laws in Wisconsin are “a patchwork,” which confuses residents who expect rules applied in Milwaukee and Madison to be applied elsewhere.
But Penalties are Worse?
“A proposed bill in the state Legislature would create a minimum penalty of $100 for getting caught with half an ounce of marijuana or less—essentially erasing Milwaukee’s ordinance that sets fines of $0 to $50 for those receiving first-time tickets for possession,” read a statement published by Milwaukee’s Common Council.
“This would make things much worse here in Milwaukee,” the councilors denounce. Currently, the effective fine for small amounts of marijuana is just $1 in Milwaukee.
Between 2010 and 2021, marijuana possession charges in Milwaukee fell more than 80% because the city’s progressive policy means that it is simply not worth the effort of catching anyone with less than 25 grams of marijuana. Not only is the new statewide proposal imposing a minimum fine which is much higher than the maximum that can be given in Milwaukee, but the amount of marijuana considered to be a personal-use amount is much smaller in the new proposal.
“Strangely, despite the minimum $100 penalty it proposes for possessing 14 grams or less, the bill keeps in place a provision allowing local governments to use discretion to set fines for possessing MORE than 14 grams of weed,” the councilors point out justly. Additionally, the bill aims to give to law enforcement officers “discretion in how they complete processing or ‘booking’ of a person for a violation,” including whether to jail an offender or not. If history taught us anything, it is that giving discretion to police officers inevitably results in more black citizens behind bars and more white people released without trouble. Given that one of the primary concerns of the cannabis reform movement in the first place is to end the racist enforcement of drug laws, the bill seems to miss the mark entirely on this point.
Setting a Standard
“This is trying to create a standard across the state that we can all come into agreement on,” Rep. Ortiz-Velez conceded. “There’s going to be some areas of the state where they’re going to have the financial penalty increased, as in Milwaukee County, and there’s going to be some counties where their fines are going to be lower.” Overall, Milwaukee, Madison, Eau Claire and Racine would have to surrender their more progressive policies to bow to the greater penalties and greater police discretion in booking small-time offenders.
Not only does the bill propose that the state’s more progressive communities abandon their social progress in order to pull up the more regressive parts of the state, it also drags around the ball and chain of its Republican leadership. Rep. Shae Sortwell and Sen. Kathy Bernier, lead Republican sponsors of the project, are characters who might not inspire confidence among the progressive electorate.
Sortwell recently resigned from the Brown County chapter of Wisconsin Right to Life, an anti-abortion organization, due to allegations of child abuse for his use of corporal punishment. When the police investigated Sortwell, they recommended that he be charged with felony child abuse according to the Green Bay Presse-Gazette, but the Brown County District Attorney did not pursue the case.
Kathy Bernier’s legislative history is appalling. Just this year, she championed multiple anti-vaccination bills (SB662; SB383; SB5), pushing a COVID-denying agenda by authoring a bill requiring all schools to offer full-time, in-person instruction in January 2021, at the height of the pandemic (SB6), as well as pro-gun-in-schools and anti-abortion legislation.
Regardless, the proposal enjoys a certain popularity with Democratic lawmakers, Wisconsinites currently living in our state’s less Democratic areas and even the local chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). Republican leadership in the legislature has not weighed in on the bill, but it seems extremely unlikely that they would support it, given that Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos himself publicly assured Wisconsin that marijuana reform would never pass a Republican legislature. Sortwell submitted the proposal to them and, he reports, “they didn’t give me a no, so I take that as a win. They didn’t give me a no, they didn’t give me a yes.”
© 420 Intel
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