On April 1, Dane County voters will have an opportunity not only to elect candidates to the County Board but also weigh in on an issue of particular significance to young voters: marijuana legalization. Although this referendum will have little to no immediate effect (especially due to the Republican-controlled Legislature), it most importantly exists to expose the relationship between drug problems and racial disparities throughout the state and perpetuate change down the road.

Dane County Supervisor Leland Pan, District 5, who is running for reelection in an area that encompasses most of the University of Wisconsin campus, sponsored the non-binding referendum. This advisory referendum will ask residents whether state government should enact policy to legalize marijuana. Despite charges that the referendum could distract voters from more serious issues on the ballot, including a nonpartisan redistricting referendum, the issue of legalization presents unresolved dilemmas that could finally be brought to the forefront of the public’s mind.

However, some may view Pan’s referendum as an election ploy, an effort to garner overwhelming student support for both himself and the concept of marijuana legalization. Regardless, Dane County’s history with marijuana referendums has been very one-sided. In fall 2010, 75.5 percent of voters in Dane County voiced support for the Dane County medical marijuana advisory referendum. While fall election turnouts tend to be much higher than their spring counterparts, it’s still safe to assume that this spring’s marijuana legalization referendum will have similar success rates.

Even though Pan is undoubtedly using his referendum to his advantage as he campaigns, the marijuana situation is actually much more complex and serious than it appears. There is a strong correlation between drug prohibition and racial disparities not only in Wisconsin but across the United States that could finally be brought to state lawmakers’ attention with the help of this referendum.

At a national level, the numbers are disturbing. We Are 1776, a pro-freedom public policy journal, published a report regarding Pennsylvania’s Regulate Marijuana Act, in which it emphasized the racist manner in which current laws criminalizing the possession of marijuana are applied. Currently, blacks are arrested about 300 percent more than their white counterparts, but they only constitute 25 percent of marijuana users. Additionally, according to the Federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 82.6 million whites have used illegal drugs in the U.S., while only 12.5 million blacks reportedly have, yet there are six times as many blacks imprisoned compared to their white counterparts. Obviously, if marijuana laws were enforced in a non-discriminatory manner, fewer blacks would be incarcerated in the nation’s prisons for drug violations, and the numbers would not be so blatantly disproportionate.

In Dane County, racial disparity is a huge issue. According to the Race to Equity report released last year, Dane County has a much greater gap between whites and blacks in many areas as compared to the rest of the nation. These categories include unemployment, poverty and education. The report also helps to highlight the disparities within the county’s criminal justice system, and the results are forcing lawmakers to address the problems brought to light.

Furthermore, by having this referendum on the ballot, conversations have already been started about the topic of legalization, which will in turn help lay the groundwork and garner support for meaningful legislation on this topic in the future. In January, Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, introduced a bill to legalize recreational marijuana, though it definitely has nowhere near the majority needed to see backing by her own party’s caucus.

Although many people may view Pan’s marijuana legalization referendum as a superficial move to get out the vote, it may in fact get the ball rolling on topics Wisconsin has yet to fully recognize and respond to. Even though change will not be immediate, this referendum, in conjunction with Sargent’s bill, will provide an open forum for discourse on a topic that is in dire need of attention at all levels of government.

Briana Reilly ([email protected]is a freshman majoring in international studies and intending to major in journalism.

[Photo by Flickr user Giovanna Baldini.]