By Gretchen Schuldt
Representatives from the Wisconsin Justice Initiative and other organizations urged Milwaukee County voters Thursday to vote "yes" on the Nov. 6 referendum question asking whether recreational marijuana should be legalized and taxed.
"We're urging a 'yes' vote because it's time for Wisconsin to join the ever-growing list of states that have recognized that marijuana prohibition is an outdated and regressive policy, WJI President Craig Johnson said at a press conference. "We're urging a 'yes' vote because it's wrong to create criminals out of people using cannabis for pain relief or to help with other medical symptoms."
Marissa Ocampo, youth organizer for the ACLU of Wisconsin, said imposing hard punishments through the criminal justice system on marijuana users hasn't reduced usage.
"Giving someone a criminal record for simple possession creates a lifetime of collateral damage," she said. "The punishment should fit the crime, and public opinion increasingly favors more sensible drug policy and a new approach to marijuana."
In 2013, she said, the ACLU released a report that showed that statewide, African-Americans were more than six times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession, while studies show that African-Americans and white use marijuana at the same rate.
The referendum question will ask, "Do you 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?"
County Supervisor John Weishan, who introduced the legislation authorizing the referendum, said arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating marijuana offenders was costly to taxpayers and the community.
"We should say, 'You know what?'" he said. "'It's time to end the prohibition on cannabis in the state of Wisconsin.'"
State Rep. David Bowen (D-Milwaukee) said the referendum can spark a new discussion about marijuana legalization in the State Legislature.
"It's been too taboo for too long," he said.
Restoring Our Communities - Wisconsin, a task force of Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope, also participated in the event.
"Black people are more likely to be locked up" for cannabis offenses, ROC member Barbara Robinson said. Reforming the marijuana laws means "we can bring our prison rate down."
WJI research shows that the vast majority of felony possession of marijuana second offense or greater cases are brought against African-American men arrested in the city of Milwaukee north of I-94.
"People used to describe marijuana as a gateway drug," WJI's Johnson said. "And unfortunately it is – because of the unequal way in which marijuana laws are enforced, for black and brown people it's a gateway into the criminal justice system, it's a gateway to jail, and it's a gateway to prison – and that's wrong."
He concluded: "We are asking the people of Milwaukee to speak up in strong voice and tell the legislators in Madison that it's time for Wisconsin to join the 21st century and end marijuana prohibition laws."
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