By Gretchen Schuldt
African Americans were defendants in more than three-fourths of the marijuana possession cases opened in Municipal Court last year, despite accounting for just 39% of the city's population.
Blacks were defendants in 462, or 77% of the 603 cases filed. Whites were defendants in 63 cases, or 10% of cases filed; Hispanics were defendants in 62 cases, also 10%; and Asians in 11 cases (2%), according to court statistics. Just one Native American was a defendant, and four defendants were of unknown races.
"Frankly, these numbers are outrageous," WJI President Craig Johnson said. WJI actively advocates for cannabis legalization.
The figures "illustrate once again the disparate impact of cannabis prohibition laws on communities of color," he said. "Just as is the case with state criminal prosecutions, the numbers regarding Milwaukee Municipal Court citations show that African Americans are cited far more often than whites - and studies have consistently shown that both groups use marijuana at the same rates."
"My position is that possession of marijuana cases must meet the standard of clear, satisfactory and convincing evidence to obtain a conviction. If 0.3 percent THC could be from the legal possession of hemp, then the ordinance violation should not be referred to court for prosecution." - Vince Bobot, candidate for Milwaukee city attorney
More defendants had home addresses in the predominantly African American zip codes of 53206 and 53209 – 65 and 64, respectively – than in any other Milwaukee zip code. (See map)
The city is 45% white, 39% African American, 19% Hispanic, 4% Asian, and 1 percent American Indian / Alaska Native, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Tickets for marijuana possession "shouldn't be dismissed as insignificant," Johnson said. "They can lead to warrants if unpaid, and can have a heavy financial burden on those who receive them, especially young people. They can also have an adverse impact on employment, rental applications and other areas of life. Wisconsin must join other Midwestern states in legalizing marijuana so that this source of disparity in our justice system can be eradicated."
Milwaukee home zip codes of defendants in 2019 Municipal Court possession of marijuana cases.
Simple possession of small amounts of cannabis can be charged as a criminal offense or, in many communities, as a municipal violation. While municipal violations are civil offenses punishable by forfeitures and are not criminal, marijuana cases often are reported to the State Department of Justice's Criminal Information Bureau. There the cases become part of individual criminal background reports available for $7 to potential landlords and employers and anyone else interested.
"Decades of trying to impose harsh punishments through the criminal justice system have had no impact on use," said Molly Collins, advocacy director for ACLU of Wisconsin. "Giving someone a criminal record for simple possession creates a lifetime of collateral damage, and imposing tickets and fees for possession isn't much better, often creating compounding consequences down the line. Public opinion increasingly favors more sensible drug policy and a new approach to marijuana, and we need to do better at the municipal and state level."
Municipal Court statistics do not reflect every single ticket that police write. Some may get dismissed before they ever get to court. The court numbers, however, are a good reflection of police activity.
Many municipalities around the country have stopped prosecuting minor cannabis cases because of the difficulty in distinguishing legal hemp from illegal marijuana. Hemp looks and smells like cannabis. It also can legally contain up to 0.3% THC, the active ingredient in cannabis.
WJI asked the three candidates running for city attorney this spring what for their positions on prosecuting minor cannabis cases.
Specifically, WJI asked:
What is your position on prosecuting simple possession of marijuana cases? Do you believe that Municipal Court prosecutors should be required to prove the alleged marijuana in possession cases contained more than the legal hemp limit of 0.3 percent THC? If not, what standard of proof in identifying marijuana should the City Attorney's office be required to meet when prosecuting possession cases? Finally, how can the city attorney's office ensure that cannabis prosecutions are not racially biased?
Only candidate Vince Bobot responded. His answer in full:
Possession of marijuana is still a crime in Wisconsin and an ordinance violation in the City of Milwaukee. That being said, I would rather see most possession of marijuana cases as an ordinance violation instead of a criminal charge.
My position is that possession of marijuana cases must meet the standard of clear, satisfactory and convincing evidence to obtain a conviction. If 0.3 percent THC could be from the legal possession of hemp, then the ordinance violation should not be referred to court for prosecution.
I also do not want to see anyone convicted of possession of marijuana in Municipal Court. Therefore, my policy would be to craft a program to enable a person to avoid a conviction. If they participate and complete the program, the violation would be dismissed.
Incumbent City Attorney Grant Langley's position might be inferred from the fact that his office pursued 603 marijuana possession cases in Municipal Court. The other candidate is Tearman Spencer. The three candidates will compete in the Feb. 18 primary election and the top two finishers will advance to the April 7 general election.
Help WJI advocate for justice in Wisconsin