Press conference held today highlighting need for voters to call for marijuana legalization
Wisconsin Justice Initiative today urged Milwaukee County voters to tell legislators what they think about marijuana legalization.
Milwaukee County voters will see a legalization referendum question on the November 8 ballot.
The question asks whether voters favor “allowing adults 21 years of age and older to engage in the personal use of marijuana, while also regulating commercial marijuana-related activities, and imposing a tax on the sale of marijuana.”
At the press conference, WJI President Craig Johnson discussed criminal justice-based reasons for legalization, including the need to end sanctions that are enforced disproportionately against people of color. Current felony sanctions for possession cause lifelong harm by serving as a gateway into the criminal justice system, he said.
Johnson was joined by Wisconsin Justice Initiative Action President Joseph Czarnezki. Czarnezki summarized the benefits of taxing revenue from marijuana sales. “Our neighboring states, Michigan and Illinois, have legalized it. Why should we be sending all our tax dollars to those states?” he said.
Czarnezki noted that in a similar referendum in Milwaukee County four years ago, voters overwhelmingly voted “yes” for legalization. The current referendum is necessary because of the “need to keep the pressure on the state Legislature,” he said.
Milwaukee County Supervisor Ryan Clancy, who sponsored the resolution putting the referendum on the ballot, highlighted how criminalization hampers hiring and employment efforts. “These things are not just locking people up, it’s not just putting people back in jail and giving more work to our Milwaukee County employees, but it’s keeping people from getting jobs in the first place.”
Wisconsin Sen. Melissa Agard talked of the legislative bills she has sponsored for a decade. Those bills have been blocked or stuck in the Legislature, and voters need to tell legislators to get them moving, she said.
Cannabis educator and researcher Brad Rowe discussed how legalization and licensing of marijuana create safer usage and the opportunity for open discussion about marijuana use. For instance, someone using marijuana could call for medical help without the response of police officers as well, he noted. He described how current law impedes research into the medical benefits of cannabis for treatment of chronic pain, nausea, or other conditions.
Andrew Hysell of Forever Wisconsin served as emcee of the press conference.
Similar referendums will be on the ballots in Dane and Eau Claire counties and in the cities of Stevens Point, Kenosha, Racine, Appleton, and Superior.
WJI supports the legalization of marijuana to avoid the disparate and severe impact on minority communities.
Listen to a recording of the press conference by clicking the arrow at the top of this story.
On November 8, voters in several municipalities will answer ballot referendum questions about marijuana legalization.
In general, the referendum questions will ask voters for their stance on whether marijuana should be legal for use by adults, taxed, and regulated like alcohol.
Countywide referendums on marijuana legalization are set for Dane County, Eau Claire County, and Milwaukee County.
Appleton, Kenosha, Racine, Stevens Point, and Superior officials approved citywide referendums.
These referendums are advisory only.
As noted in several of the authorizing resolutions, the referendums are meant to measure public opinion and send that message to state legislators and the governor.
Resolutions point to the legalization of marijuana in some form in at least 37 states, including every state surrounding Wisconsin. The Dane County resolution points to Wisconsin “becoming an island of prohibition.”
The resolutions also point to anticipated tax revenue and business opportunities related to legalization. Eau Claire County’s resolution specifically references $600 million and $300 million in tax revenue collected by Illinois and Michigan, respectively.
Some resolutions note the use of marijuana for pain relief. The Superior resolution, for instance, notes that “marijuana use as an alternative to prescription pain killers has been shown to reduce opioid addiction, and 22% of U.S. military veterans report using medical marijuana to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”
Resolutions also reference how criminalization has failed to curb marijuana use, the potential for undercutting the illegal market and ensuring that marijuana use is regulated and safe, and a desire to divert law enforcement resources to more serious crimes.
Milwaukee County’s resolution points to criminal enforcement that “often results in charges disproportionately to people of color and young people.” Dane County’s resolution similarly points to disparities in arrests “with Black individuals over four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses than white individuals in Wisconsin, according to 2019 data.”
Some of the approved referendum questions set the age of legal use at 21, while others refer simply to adult use. Superior Councilor Mark Johnson moved for the age-21 threshold in his city’s ballot question due to his concern about use by youth.
Johnson told WJI that he intends the Superior referendum to let city officials know where the community stands generally on the issue. Legalization is happening across the county, and his constituents may “agree that the house needs to be built” even if they disagree about specific details like the color of the cabinets, he said.
In Milwaukee County, where a legalization question appeared on the ballot in 2018, the resolution authorizing this year’s question states that it is important to ask voters “the same question again to better understand how people’s views are changing on the issue of marijuana legalization, and to help put a stop to the waste of public resources toward enforcement which unjustly affects people of color.”
Marquette Law School poll results released August 17, 2022, show that 69% of all respondents — including 51% of identified Republicans — believe marijuana should be legal in Wisconsin. Only 23% of respondents were opposed to legalization, while 8% said they were unsure.
Under current Wisconsin law, a first offense for marijuana possession is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Second and subsequent possession offenses are felonies. A second offense may result in up to three and a half years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Dane County approved a second referendum question related to marijuana. Voters there will be asked whether all records of previous convictions for possession of small amounts of marijuana should be expunged.
Cannabis production method targeted in legislation increasing penalties for dealing, possession
By Gretchen Schuldt
Penalties for second-offense marijuana possession, already a felony, would increase substantially if butane extraction was used in the production process, under a bill making its way through the Legislature.
Industry officials say that occasional users may have no clue how their product was processed, although frequent imbibers may be able to tell the difference by the taste.
The maximum penalty for second-offense (or greater) possession now is 3½ years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Under the bill, the penalties for second-offense (or greater) marijuana would increase depending on the amount of butane-extracted cannabis involved. The amounts and maximum penalties would be:
The bill also would significantly increase the penalty for manufacturing, delivering, or selling any amount of butane-extracted cannabis. Currently, marijuana manufacturing and dealing carries different sentences depending on the amount involved. Under the bill, those crimes, regardless of amount, would be punishable by up to 15 years in prison and a $50,000 fine. That means a person could go potentially to prison for a very long stretch for sharing a gummy bear with a friend.
Butane extraction is a common method of concentrating cannabis resin. Butane extraction can produce a THC concentration of up to 90%. The concentrate is used in a variety of products, including edibles and vaping juices.
Commercial entities generally use a closed system of butane extraction, which is not considered an explosion hazard. Closed systems keep the butane from escaping into the atmosphere.
Some processors, including those running clandestine labs, use an "open blasting" system that allows the butane to escape into the atmosphere, creating a danger of explosions.
The pending bill does not differentiate between open and closed production methods used or whether any hazards are actually present.
"This is a very misguided effort," said Bryce Brisbin, director of technical sales at Luna Technologies, a cannabis extraction company. Closed-system butane cannabis extraction is safe and provides a high-quality product, he said.
"Open blasting should be banned, totally illegal," he said. "It's incredibly stupid."
State Rep. Jesse James (R-Altoona), a sponsor of the legislation in the Assembly, said in prepared testimony last week that "The criminal elements and punishments of possessing, manufacturing, and delivery of BHO (butane honey oil) is the same as marijuana. I understand marijuana is needed to make BHO, but the process is making a totally different product, with a higher potency, which sells at a higher rate, putting the lives of those who manufacture it and others at risk."
He acknowledged that the closed-loop system was generally more "safer, controlled, and effective" than the open blasting system.
"The societal harms stemming from more prevalent and more potent cannabis is well-established in research exploring the effects on public safety and violent crime, traffic safety and the workforce," said State Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville), another sponsor. "The narrative surrounding the alleged medical benefits of cannabis tends to readily dismiss the aforementioned harms."
There were 45,486 state court criminal convictions for marijuana possession from through 2010 through 2019.
Check out the county-by-county breakdown, along with trends, here.
The data is from Wisconsin Circuit Court Access system via the Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office. Catch our earlier post here.
Milwaukee County cannabis convictions drop; disparities persist in Milwaukee and state
By Gretchen Schuldt
Criminal cannabis convictions dropped significantly in Milwaukee County and the state over a 10-year period, but racial gaps remain, according to a new report by the Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office.
And the statewide decline largely was driven by what happened in Milwaukee County, according to the report.
While the number of cannabis arrests dropped dramatically in Milwaukee County from 2010 through 2019, the state's arrest numbers remained steady, peaking in 2018 at 17,428.
Statewide, "arrests for possession of marijuana have not decreased below 14,000" per year during the decade, the report said.
Overall, the number of marijuana possession arrests in Milwaukee County dropped 60%, from 4,785 to 1,927 from 2010 to 2019, according to the data. That is a decline of 2,858 arrests.
"Arrests now represent ~ (about) 13% of overall state arrests (down from ~33%), with ~16% of Wisconsin's population," the report said.
The number of convictions in the county declined 94% over the same time period, the report said. There were 1,285 convictions in 2010 and just 96 in 2019, a decline of 1,189.
The drop in Milwaukee County convictions drove a statewide decline over the decade, the report said. Convictions for marijuana possession dropped statewide from 5,108 in 2010 to 4,021 in 2019, a decline of 1,087, or 21%.
"Notably, 2018 conviction trends without Milwaukee saw 10-year highs," the report said. "And felony convictions only decreased ~3% instead of a ~43% decrease."
Still, racial disparities persist. Black people in 2019 were 3.2 times more likely than Whites to be arrested in Milwaukee County for marijuana possession only, without other crimes attached, according to the report.
The gaps were far larger in some other counties, the report said.
"The worst disparities in Wisconsin are in Ozaukee County (34.9 more likely) and Manitowoc (29.9 more likely)," the report said.
Statewide, according to an earlier ACLU study, Black people were 4.2 times as likely to be arrested for pot possession than Whites.
The new study, by District Attorney John Chisholm and researcher Brendan DuPont, is based on state circuit court records and FBI arrest data. The study is part of the office's efforts with the National Institute of Corrections Evidence-Based Decision Making Initiative to improve decision-making.
"We focused on diverting or declining cases, like possession of marijuana, away from the justice system when appropriate," the report said.
In 2015, Chisholm's office implemented a policy to not prosecute non-violent individuals who possess 28 grams (just under an ounce) or less of marijuana, the report said.
Chisholm said in an interview that his office is unlikely to charge marijuana possession cases unless there is another issue, such as impaired driving, possession of a firearm while impaired, or an associated crime of violence.
Chisholm favors cannabis legalization and regulation.
The policy does not mean that possession cases are not prosecuted at all or that the arrests just disappear.
"I suspect a lot of them are sent to municipal court," Chisholm said.
Municipalities in the state have the option of prosecuting marijuana possession cases in municipal courts, where offenses are punishable by forfeitures are considered civil, not criminal matters.
Counties other than Milwaukee County account for much of the racial disparities in convictions, according to the report.
"In 2019, Milwaukee County had 69% of the state's Black population, but only 8% of its marijuana possession convictions," the report said. "Ninety-two percent of Black marijuana possession convictions occur outside Milwaukee County, despite the rest of Wisconsin representing only 31% of the Black population."
Statewide, Black people had 14 convictions per 10,000, while the White conviction rate was 3.27 per 10,000. Black people were 4.3 times more likely than White people to be convicted, according to the report.
In Milwaukee County, both races were less likely to be convicted than elsewhere, but the disparity was larger. The Milwaukee County conviction rate in 2019 was .11 per 10,000 residents for White people and 1.7 per 10,000 for Black people, about 15.5 times higher than for Whites.
In 2010 Black people statewide were 9.5 times more likely to be convicted in marijuana possession cases. Black people then had 39.23 convictions per 10,000, compared to White people with 4.1 convictions per 10,000.
The study did not fully examine other racial groups due to a lack of reliable data. It did say, though, that convictions in marijuana possession-only cases for American Indians or Alaskan Natives hit a 10-year high in 2019.
Proposal would set $1 penalty for Milwaukee County marijuana, paraphernalia violations
By Gretchen Schuldt
March 26 update – The County Board approved the measure to reduce cannabis fines. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has a story here.
The Milwaukee County penalty for marijuana possession would drop from up to $500 to $1, under a proposal introduced by a group of county supervisors.
"In achieving racial equity, disparities in the criminal justice system, including marijuana and paraphernalia possession laws, must be eradicated," the resolution said.
County Supervisor Joseph Czarnezki, who also is a WJI Board member, said Thursday that marijuana possession prosecutions disproportionately affect low-income and minority communities.
The state should fully legalize cannabis, he said.
"This is a step in that direction," he said.
Other sponsors include Supervisors Sylvia Ortiz-Velez, Ryan Clancy, Steven Shea, Sequanna Taylor, Willie Johnson, Jr., Liz Sumner and Marcelia Nicholson.
The existing county ordinance calls for forfeitures of $250 to $500 and the county usually levies a $275 penalty, according to the proposal. When additional fees are added in, however, the total jumps to about $484.
A $1 penalty would really cost $142.26 once fees and surcharges are included, according to a court official. The new penalty also would apply to possession of drug paraphernalia ordinance violations.
There were 187 county marijuana tickets issued in 2019, according to the resolution.
Under the existing ordinance, "some individuals may not be able to afford the fine and fees associated with a marijuana possession citation, which may result in their case being sent to collections or an increased charge, which is less likely to be collected by Milwaukee County and can affect an individual's financial situation, including their credit scores," the resolution said.
State law also mandates that information, including photographs and fingerprints, of people arrested for offenses – including minor ordinance violations – involving controlled substances be submitted to the State Department of Justice. The arrest information is available to anyone performing a criminal background check through the department.
The county ordinance applies to cases involving 25 grams or less of marijuana. Law enforcement can still issue state tickets, if necessary, for amounts larger than that, the ordinance said.
The proposal cites a 2020 ACLU report that found that Black people are 3.64 times more likely that Whites to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite similar usage rates. ACLU-Wisconsin found that Black Wisconsinites were 4.2 time more likely than White Wisconsinites to be arrested for possession than Whites and that Wisconsin ranks 14th in the country for the largest racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests.
Wisconsin also was one of 17 states that saw a jump in cannabis possession arrests from 2010 to 2018 "despite an increasing shift in attitudes toward decriminalization and legalization of marijuana," the resolution said.
WJI reported that Black people were defendants in 77% of marijuana possession cases in Milwaukee Municipal Court in 2019, despite making up just 39% of the city's population.
WJI and ACLU ask City Attorney Tearman Spencer to end Milwaukee city cannabis prosecutions
African Americans were defendants in 77% of 2019 Milwaukee Municipal Court cannabis cases
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.
African Americans, 7% of state's population, are defendants in 21% of WI criminal cannabis cases
By Gretchen Schuldt
African Americans were defendants in 21% of criminal marijuana cases filed in Wisconsin circuit courts last year while accounting for just 7% of the state's population, a Wisconsin Justice Initiative / American Constitution Society analysis shows.
The analysis included cannabis cases filed in each of the state's 72 counties.
The figures demonstrate "that marijuana prosecutions impact more heavily on the African American population," even though African Americans and Whites use marijuana at about the same rates, WJI President Craig Johnson said.
The disparity "clearly points to another reason for legalizing it," he said.
There were 8,697 Circuit Court cases that included misdemeanor or felony cannabis charges, the analysis shows, and African Americans were defendants in 1,846 of those cases.
Whites, who account for 87% of the state's population, made up just 66% of defendants in marijuana cases, figures show. Whites were defendants in 5,776 cases.
American Indians / Alaska Natives also were over-represented among those facing cannabis charges. Members of that ethnic group account for about 1% of the state's population, but 5% of cannabis defendants.
Hispanics and Asians were under-represented in marijuana cases. Hispanics make up 7 percent of the state's population and were defendants in 3% of cannabis cases, and Asians accounted for 3% of the population and 1% of cannabis defendants.
The analysis also shows that the filing rate of criminal cases varies widely across the state. In Waushara County, for example, one cannabis case was filed for every 120 county residents, the highest rate in the state; in Dane County, one case was filed for every 4,339 residents, the lowest filing rate statewide. It was followed by Milwaukee County, where one cannabis case was filed for every 3,292 residents.
The Black/White racial disparities in those latter two counties, however, were bigger than in any of the other 70 counties in the state.
More information available on our 2019 Pot Page.
In Dane County, African Americans account for just 5% of the population but were 68% (85 of 125) of cannabis defendants, for a disparity of 63 percentage points, the largest in the state.
In Milwaukee County, 27% of residents are African-American, but Blacks accounted for 85% – (244 out of 288) – of cannabis case defendants, a gap of 58 percentage points, the state's second highest.
Those figures, Johnson said, shows that cannabis "is kind of the drug of the privileged."
There are some areas, he said, "where marijuana has sort of de facto legalization." Those areas are generally whiter, wealthier and more liberal, he said.
"My gut feeling is your over-policed communities end up with more charges," he said. "So we have unequal protection under the law."
The analysis also showed that 75% of the defendants in cannabis cases statewide were men. Milwaukee had the largest share of male defendants at 95%, followed by Dane and Jefferson counties. Some 90% of cannabis defendants in each of those counties were men.
The cases included in the analysis were those with some sort of marijuana charge, whether felony or misdemeanor. WJI counted cases filed with misdemeanor marijuana charges as misdemeanors and those with felony marijuana charges as felonies.
By Gretchen Schuldt
The results of 55 of 72 (76%) of Wisconsin counties' 2018 marijuana cases are in!
Some results of the analysis thus far:
And see earlier posts here and here.
The Wisconsin Justice Initiative and the American Constitution Society Milwaukee Lawyer Chapter launched this project to examine 2018 criminal cannabis cases filed in all 72 Wisconsin counties in an effort to better understand where, how, and against whom cannabis crimes are prosecuted.
2018 cannabis cases
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