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Bipartisan bill would reduce cannabis possession penalties in some cities, increase fines in Madison
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Bipartisan bill would reduce cannabis possession penalties in some cities, increase fines in Madison

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A bipartisan bill being circulated for co-sponsors would create statewide laws for marijuana possession in Wisconsin, which would reduce penalties in some communities but also increase fines in cities like Madison and Milwaukee.

Rep. Shae Sortwell

Sortwell

The bill, introduced Tuesday by Rep. Shae Sortwell, R-Two Rivers, and Sen. Sylvia Ortiz-Velez, D-Milwaukee, would require local governments to enforce fines between $100 and $250, or 16 to 40 hours of community service, for possessing up to 14 grams of marijuana. Cities would have discretion for cases involving more than 14 grams up to an ounce (28 grams) of cannabis and federal criminal offenses would apply to anyone possessing more than an ounce of marijuana.

Under current law, first-time marijuana possession is punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail, while local governments are allowed to establish their own penalties for possessing small amounts of the plant. Subsequent offenses are a felony.

Rep. Sylvia Ortiz-Velez

Ortiz-Velez

If adopted, the statewide law would supersede local ordinances like the one passed in Madison last year that directs police to not pursue state criminal charges for having up to 28 grams of cannabis, as long as the incident doesn’t include another crime. Madison’s ordinance is not decriminalization, but effectively allows people 18 or older to carry up to an ounce of marijuana and consume it on public or private property, with some exceptions.

“Our local governments and the people in those communities have worked really hard to find a way to address the egregiousness of prohibition and come up with local solutions that honor what it is that the people in those communities are looking for,” said Sen. Melissa Agard, D-Madison, who introduced proposed legislation in August to fully legalize marijuana in the state. “To move that needle backwards feels concerning to me.”

Ortiz-Velez championed efforts earlier this year as a Milwaukee County supervisor to reduce the penalty for possession of up to 25 grams of marijuana to $1. During a press conference on Tuesday, Ortiz-Velez said a statewide standard eliminates confusion over different laws in different communities.

“If people are confused with how the laws apply within patchworks, that makes it harder,” Ortiz-Velez said. “We understand it’s worth the trade-off and that’s coming from the person who actually made it $1 in Milwaukee County.”

Eau Claire also reduced possession fines to $1, though the total cost ends up being closer to $148 with court expenses, according to a 2019 report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

At the same time, the bill would reduce local possession charges in other communities like Green Bay, where such an offense comes with a $500 fine. Maximum fines for possession in West Allis can reach $1,000 and, in Wauwatosa, fines can reach as much as $5,000, according to the Forum’s report.

Fewer felonies?

Ortiz-Velez said the ultimate goal of the bill is to reduce the number of felony charges issued in the state for those in possession of small amounts of cannabis.

“We know that felony charges can be a barrier to employment and housing,” she said. “What we should think about is whether or not we believe that small possession of marijuana really rises to a felonious act — it does not.”

Sortwell said the bill is meant to find middle ground between conservative lawmakers who want more stringent penalties for possession and liberal legislators seeking full decriminalization.

“Nobody is getting a giant win in this bill,” Sortwell said. “This is trying to create a standard across the state that, generally speaking, we can all come to agreement on.”

The bill also would eliminate the state’s increasing scale of penalties for repeat possession offenses as long as subsequent offenses are for matters involving less than 28 grams of cannabis. Another part of the bill would limit an employer’s liability if they do not drug test employees.

Some skeptical

While Democratic lawmakers, including Gov. Tony Evers, have advocated for allowing recreational and/or medicinal use of marijuana in Wisconsin, the bill unveiled Tuesday may face challenges getting support among all Democratic lawmakers, especially those in the state’s two largest cities of Madison and Milwaukee.

“I don’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican, when you are introducing legislation that moves us backward, I am not supportive, so I won’t be supporting this,” said Rep. Shelia Stubbs, D-Madison.

Stubbs also questioned why the bill establishes a minimum $100 fine for possession of up to 14 grams of marijuana, but provides local entities discretion for having between 14 grams and an ounce, which could effectively allow communities like Madison or Milwaukee to enforce $1 fines for such offenses.

“It just doesn’t logically make sense,” Stubbs said.

Sen. Kelda Roys, D-Madison, said it’s positive to see Republicans coming out in favor of reduced penalties for marijuana possession, but added the latest measure “falls well short” of what she wants to see.

Roys also noted that it remains unclear how the proposed law would mesh with local ordinances like Madison’s, which directs police to not seek charges for possession of less than 28 grams of cannabis.

“I don’t think you’re going to see Madison police or Dane County prosecutors rushing to impose a bunch of fines on people, but laws are a statement of our values in a society and if this was on the books it gets harder for fair- and justice-minded law enforcement personnel to just ignore it,” Roys said.

Mayor responds

Madison City Attorney Michael Haas said his office had not reviewed the full bill as of Tuesday afternoon and could not comment on the effect it might have on the city’s ordinance or enforcement.

“This legislation doesn’t go far enough,” Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said in a statement. “Wisconsin should follow in the footsteps of other states that have legalized and taxed marijuana.”

Sortwell said the bill has already received close to a dozen co-sponsors and he’s hopeful the proposal can come before a hearing yet this legislative session.

“The Assembly leadership, they didn’t give me a no, they didn’t give me a yes, they took it under advisement,” Sortwell said.

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