Marijuana — the very mention of the word conjures up the images of cultural icons like Cheech and Chong, Harold and Kumar and, of course, anyone and anything having to do with the 1960s. With the recent legalization of marijuana in Washington and Colorado, it is easy to see marijuana is growing in popularity and acceptance. While Wisconsin does not appear to be anywhere near legalizing it, marijuana should at least be decriminalized for many common sense reasons. And with 4/20 just around the corner, there’s no better time to be discussing decriminalizing marijuana in Wisconsin.
Under current Wisconsin state law, being convicted twice of possession of any amount of marijuana will warrant the offender receives a felony charge. This is slightly different in the city of Madison, where people caught with less than 25 grams of marijuana will only be charged a fine.
Now for those who don’t know, receiving a felony comes with several penalties, even after the offender serves more than a year in prison. When a person is convicted of a felony, they are not allowed to own a firearm, which in turn disqualifies them from armed service. They are not allowed to live in public housing. They are ineligible for student loans, which many young people are becoming dependent on in order to go college. Lastly, a felony is grounds for denying someone a job. Now, no persons in their right mind think about these consequences when they are about to light up on a Saturday evening.
What is even more outrageous is what happens when you compare the penalties for smoking marijuana to the penalties for Wisconsin’s hushed problem, drunk driving. According to Wisconsin state statutes, in order to get a felony charge for drunk driving, a person needs to accumulate at least five offenses. Depending on the judge’s discretion and the circumstances, this number is sometimes reduced to four. This is even more amazing when you realize that, according to USA Today, drunk driving was responsible for 225 deaths and 2,984 injuries in 2011, while marijuana was responsible for a whopping zero. If anything, the penalties for these two offenses should be switched.
Since Wisconsin has such strict marijuana penalties, it is logical to assume that people are serving time for marijuana violations in our prisons. But exactly how many? In an extensive study conducted by drugscience.org, Jon Gettman determined in 2007, Wisconsin had 17,734 marijuana arrests, each of which resulted in some time spent in either jail or prison. It is key to point out that 87 percent of these arrests were for possession only.
Now, much to many people’s surprise, the criminal justice system does not run itself for free, and with such an exorbitant number of people going through the criminal justice system due to marijuana, it’s not going to get any cheaper. The 17,734 offenders in 2007 cost the state of Wisconsin a total of $132.17 million for arrest, prosecution and housing. This was 4 percent of the entire budget for the criminal justice system that year.
Beyond spending money to house these dangerous doped-up felons, strict marijuana laws require police to waste their time and energy catching marijuana offenders, rather than pursuing more serious criminals. It is necessary to mention that the 17,734 marijuana offenders accounted for 68 percent of all drug arrests in Wisconsin. In other words, this means that the war on drugs in Wisconsin is mainly being waged against marijuana.
Lastly, the harsh penalties in Wisconsin do not appear to be stopping anyone from smoking marijuana. In a period between 2003 and 2007, the number of marijuana users increased from 455,000 to 493,000. Wisconsin’s marijuana laws are neither changing minds nor preventing the offense from occurring – they are only wasting time and money.
Marijuana should at least be decriminalized in Wisconsin. Marijuana possession could have more beneficial penalties than felonies. Wisconsin could make offenders pay only a small fine or sentence them to several hundred hours of community service. At least in these scenarios, the offenders would be giving more back to the community than they would be by being housed in prison for a year. However, the most financially practical solution to the marijuana problem would be to legalize possession of a small amount of marijuana, regulate it and tax it at a rate higher than that on cigarettes. This would eliminate the illegal market for the drug and give the government the ability to play a major role in the marijuana market.
Jared Mehre ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in political science, sociology and legal studies.