Despite years of polling showing consistent public support for the legalization of Marijuana, and some efforts by state and local leaders to implement that policy, legalization remains a distant goal, state representatives say.
It’s a topic that divides local officials, with some saying increased tax revenue and demonstrable medicinal benefits — and a punishment system that disproportionately affects Black people — are strong evidence in favor of such a policy.
But opponents argue Marijuana is a gateway drug and harmful to minors.
Meanwhile, for state residents, enforcement and citations can differ depending on where you live.
But what will remain the same, police officials say, is enforcement of current law — until, or unless, it changes.
Milwaukee County lowers the fine for possession
In March, the Milwaukee County Board voted to decrease the fine for possession of marijuana to $1.
It was a move to continue the county’s goal of becoming the healthiest county in the state by achieving racial equity, as a resolution said, “in achieving racial equity, disparities in the criminal justice system, including Marijuana and paraphernalia possession laws, must be eradicated.”
Joseph J. Czarnezki, a Milwaukee County supervisor who represents Greenfield, Franklin and Milwaukee, was one of the co-sponsors of the resolution.
“I think the thing we have to do is continue to put public pressure on our state legislature to do what our neighboring states have done and somehow soften the legal prohibitions on Marijuana in the state of Wisconsin,” he said.
Although it’s unlikely that the state will legalize Marijuana soon, many other states allow Marijuana to be used for medical purposes or for recreational use, according to the National Cannabis Industry Association.
Thirty-six states have medical Marijuana programs, including states bordering Wisconsin.
Czarnezki said an incremental approach to legalization could work in Wisconsin — allowing medical use of the drug first and then recreational use.
Liz Sumner, a Milwaukee County supervisor who represents Fox Point, Bayside, Glendale, Brown Deer, River Hills and Milwaukee, also favors legalizing Marijuana at the state level.
She’s surprised it hasn’t happened already.
“I really don’t understand why a state that used to be so progressive is really dragging its feet on this,” Sumner said.
Reasons Sumner cites for supporting legalization include increased tax revenues and a decrease in incarceration rates for Marijuana possession.
“We could invest in our communities that need the most investment, invest in more public education, health care, things like that,” Sumner said.
The resolution lowering the fine for possession of Marijuana passed March 24 by a vote of 16-1. Supervisor Patti Logsdon cast the only no vote.
“Right now, Marijuana is an illegal drug. Reducing the fine for possession while it is still illegal may encourage people to use it because they may think the consequences aren’t serious,” Logsdon wrote in an email.
“Even though we are reducing our penalties, there are other consequences for individuals which the county can’t control, because it is still illegal. I don’t favor proposals which give the appearance that something is consequence-free when it isn’t.”
But has the decrease in fine amounts changed the number of people who are fined in Milwaukee County? That’s not entirely clear yet.
From Jan.1-March 24, a period of 83 days, the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office issued 69 citations, according to data from the office. That’s an average of 0.83 citations per day.
From March 25-June 27, a period of 94 days, the office issued 67 citations, for an average of 0.71 citations per day.
It’s also unlikely a drop in the fine amount for Marijuana possession will happen in neighboring Waukesha County.
“There are currently no proposed ordinances or resolutions related to modifying current Marijuana possession fines scheduled for consideration in Waukesha County,” said Waukesha County spokeswoman Nicole Armendariz.
‘A step in the right direction’
Wisconsin voters have showed wide support for legalization of Marijuana in recent years.
A 2018 referendum in the city of Waukesha also found that 77% of voters there said Marijuana should be legalized for medical use in the state and regulated as a prescription drug.
The move to drop the fine amount in Milwaukee County is a “step in the right direction,” according to Rick Banks, a Milwaukee area community organizer who favors legalization.
Banks said alcohol is a true gateway drug, not Marijuana.
“I think we should treat them similarly. If alcohol is legal, then so should Marijuana,” Banks said.
Banks also favors Portugal’s approach of drug enforcement. Portugal decriminalized all drugs in 2001. Since then, Portugal has seen dramatic drops in overdoses, HIV infection and drug-related crime, according to an article from the Guardian.
“I think people like to make it seem like we’re so much different than the rest of the world, but we’re all people dealing with similar issues of poverty and trauma and all types of things like that, and if it works at other places around the world, I think it could work here,” Banks said.
Data shows disparities
A 2020 report from the American Civil Liberties Union found that Black people are 4.2 times more likely than white people to be arrested for Marijuana possession in Wisconsin, even though Marijuana usage rates among Black and white people are comparable.
Those numbers are even more startlingly out of proportion in some counties in southeastern Wisconsin.
The ACLU report found that in Ozaukee County, Black people are 34.90 times more likely to be arrested for a Marijuana possession charge than a white person. That number is at 27.07 for Washington County and 23.88 for Waukesha County.
In Milwaukee County, the number is lower than the state average; there, Black people are 3.2 times more likely than white people to be arrested for Marijuana possession.
A report from the DA’s office that analyzed 10 years of marijuana possession arrests and convictions in Wisconsin found that “unlike statewide arrest trends that remain unchanged over 10 years, possession of Marijuana arrests in Milwaukee County steadily decreased by 59.73% from 2010-2019.”
The report, co-authored by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm and Branden DuPont, found that Marijuana arrests and convictions in Milwaukee County have dropped. But racial disparities still exist.
DuPont, a data analyst with the Institute for Health and Equity at the Medical College of Wisconsin, said he expected statewide arrest and conviction trends for Marijuana possession to decline with public support.
But that wasn’t the case.
“Wisconsin arrest trends for possession of Marijuana remain unchanged over 10 years,” DuPont said.
“There are severe disparities in Black Marijuana possession convictions that are driven by counties outside Milwaukee,” DuPont said. “Despite Milwaukee County having more than two-thirds of Wisconsin’s Black population, in 2019, 92% of Wisconsin’s Black Marijuana possession convictions occur in the rest of the state.”
Gretchen Schuldt, a Wauwatosa resident and executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative, fully supports legalization.
“In really looking at the data over the past several years, the need for legalization has become so clear to me,” she said.
She’s especially concerned by the numbers in Milwaukee. In the city of Milwaukee, African Americans were defendants in more than ¾ of the Marijuana possession cases opened in municipal court in 2019, despite accounting for just 39% of the city’s population.
“The way it’s enforced is blatantly discriminatory,” Schuldt said.
She believes Marijuana possession laws are outdated.
“When was the last time someone was arrested and charged with adultery? There are a lot of laws that are ignored because they’re outdated and they’re silly. This should be one of them,” she said.
Angela Lang, founder and executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC), thinks legalization is long overdue.
“I think there are these negative stereotypes that Black people are drug dealers or this or that, so it really goes to show why some of these disparities happen,” Lang said.
“We need to legalize it and then making sure we’re expunging people’s records that have that destroyed peoples lives,” Lang said.
Tamer Malone, a lead ambassador with BLOC, said she was wrongfully charged with possession of Marijuana after a car accident.
Now she has a misdemeanor Marijuana possession charge on her record. She was ordered to pay $295 for the citation. She says she would have gone to court to fight the charge but wasn’t able to because she lived three hours away at the time.
“It’s really crazy that it’s on my record now because I feel like what if I want to go get a nice job or something and they do a background check?” Malone said. “I’m already discriminated against being a person of color, so them seeing that is even bigger discrimination.”
How it’s enforced
It’s illegal to possess, manufacture or sell Marijuana in Wisconsin.
A first offense for possession of Marijuana is a misdemeanor with a fine of up to $1,000 and/or imprisonment of up to six months. A second offense is a felony with a fine of up to $10,000 and/or imprisonment for up to 3½ years.
But some municipalities have drafted their own ordinances.
In Waukesha County, the fine amounts for Marijuana possession are set by the county board.
Lisa Zielke, the office services coordinator for the Waukesha County Sheriff’s Department, said the judge or commissioner has the authority to order the fine amounts.
“The sheriff’s department only enforces the actual violation, not the fine amount. The same holds for each municipality we contract with,” Zielke said in an email.
Christy Knowles, the undersheriff for the Ozaukee County Sheriff’s Office, said Marijuana possession is a criminal offense in Ozaukee County.
First-time possession carries a $100 bond, Knowles said.
“Our deputies are expected to enforce the law. It is a crime to possess Marijuana in Ozaukee County. If a deputy encounters a subject with Marijuana, the subject is usually arrested for the possession of it,” Knowles wrote in an email.
Washington County Sheriff Martin Schulteis said he understands that there are medical benefits of Marijuana, but its illegal use is still a problem.
“Although we have other significantly more dangerous drugs that law enforcement needs to focus our finite resources on, Marijuana is still a prevalent drug in Washington County that we do not overlook,” Schulteis said. “The predominant reason for this approach is because (in) the majority of drug overdose deaths we investigate, the victim has some level of THC in their system.”
“I certainly recognize there is supportive evidence of medical benefits of Marijuana used for medical purposes. My resolution to that is simple: Put THC in pill form, and have a medical professional prescribe it.”
Marijuana is harmful for children, one mayor says
Although many area elected officials support legalization, that’s not a universal sentiment.
Some are concerned about the adverse effects cannabis can have on young people’s brains.
Brookfield Mayor Steve Ponto opposes the legalization of Marijuana in Wisconsin.
“My observation has been that legalizing Marijuana would be harmful to the population in general, but particularly harmful for young people,” he said.
Ponto is worried about potentially adverse effects on brain development.
He cited the American Medical Association, which recently said it does “not support legalization of cannabis for adult use until additional scientific research has been completed to fully document the public health, medical and economic consequences of its use.”
Ponto also said he believes Marijuana is a gateway drug.
“I think our young people are going to need everything they can to have going for them, and the idea of making it easy for them to expose themselves to Marijuana … strikes me as a really bad idea,” Ponto said.
Ponto also said he was “shocked” when he heard Milwaukee County had decreased the fine for possession.
“I think this is one of those issues where there just really is a tremendous difference between Milwaukee County and Waukesha County,” he said.
Franklin Mayor Steve Olson opposes the legalization of recreational Marijuana.
Olson, who called himself a conservative, spent two years working at an alcohol and drug treatment facility.
“Adding another intoxicant, or mind-altering substance, to the list that’s already crowded, just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” Olson said.
“If you’re inclined to use Marijuana, then there’s an easy opportunity for you to step into something else,” he added.
But he acknowledged that there are medical benefits to medical Marijuana.
“I do believe there’s benefit to medical use of Marijuana but believe that dispensing it needs to have better controls than what I’ve seen across the country,” he said.
Pewaukee Mayor Steve Bierce favors legalization even though he also considers himself a conservative.
“As a true conservative, I don’t believe that the government should be infringing on our life and telling us how to live,” Bierce said. “I don’t understand why government thinks they have any right to tell us how we should act in the privacy of our own homes.”
He believes, if Marijuana is legalized, it should be controlled.
“People should not use substances like this and then go out and drive,” he said, “or go to work and do things that cause damage to other people.”