The disparities in arrests for marijuana use has two Democratic lawmakers taking different approaches on lessening penalties for possession.
One bill, from Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, would fully legalize marijuana in the state for medical and recreational purposes.
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The other, from Rep. Mandela Barnes, D-Milwaukee, would decriminalize small amounts of marijuana up to 25 grams. Small scale possession would not warrant jail time or be punishable under state law, but municipalities would have the authority to write fines for marijuana possession.
Barnes told The Badger Herald recently that he does not believe possessing a small amount of marijuana should ever be a felony, even after the first conviction.
“Having that felony on your background check, it limits people’s ability to find jobs, stifles their ability to pay for education in some cases and also restricts them from voting for a certain amount of time,” Barnes said.
Decriminalization of marijuana typically means first-time possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal use is considered a misdemeanor and generally will not result in a criminal record or prison time, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Legalization of cannabis, however, means there is no legal penalty for small amounts marijuana, and the state can regulate and tax its distribution.
Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have laws decriminalizing marijuana, and in four states, recreational marijuana use is legal for adults.
According to a 2013 report from the American Civil Liberties Union, there were 15,950 marijuana arrests in Wisconsin in 2010, placing the state at 15 for most cannabis possession arrests.
The ACLU report found a significant racial disparity in terms of cannabis arrests in Wisconsin. In Dane County, blacks were 6.5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites in 2010.
Currently, first time marijuana possession is punishable as a misdemeanor under Wisconsin state law, bringing up to a $1,000 fine and/or six months of jail time. Subsequent possession incidents are considered felonies under state law.
But Madison Police Department spokesperson Joel DeSpain said the department tends not to focus efforts on penalizing those possessing small amounts of cannabis.
“We just don’t put that much effort into smaller amounts of marijuana,” DeSpain said.
MPD puts more resources into prosecuting those possessing and dealing large amounts of cannabis than situations where only small, personal amounts are present, DeSpain said.
Madison Police Chief Mike Koval said in a previous interview with The Badger Herald he would rather see the force’s efforts focused on combating other drug issues in the city, such as the recent spike in the city’s heroin-related crimes.
Joe Erato, president of the Wisconsin Cannabis Project, describes himself as a conservative who supports legalization of cannabis. He said whether or not cannabis is legal, there will be a market need.
“When you make that illegal, the need or want for that substance doesn’t go away; it just drives it underground,” Erato said.
Erato said this “market need” would exist whether or not marijuana is legal, but its illegality emboldens criminal operations that sell the drug.