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This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.

Although arrests for marijuana possession are down, racial disparities in enforcement still exist in Milwaukee County. (File photo by Jabril Faraj)

The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors on Thursday adopted a resolution to reduce the fine for marijuana and drug paraphernalia possession of 25 grams or less to $1.

“There’s a long history of arrests being used as a tool to racially discriminate,” said Supervisor Sylvia Ortiz-Velez, who co-sponsored the reduced-fine proposal. “A greater majority of the people arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana are African Americans even though use is similar across all races.”

Ortiz-Velez said fines for marijuana possession also create an unnecessary financial burden. Only a quarter of fines for marijuana possession in Milwaukee County since 2019 have been paid, she said. She also referenced the results of several 2018 referendums in Wisconsin related to marijuana, which showed strong support for legalization in many areas of the state, including Milwaukee County. Questions on those referendums did differ across counties, with some asking about support for legalizing marijuana for medical use and some focusing on recreational use. Some, including Milwaukee County, asked about both.

Madison changed its cannabis possession laws late last year, making it legal to possess up to 28 grams of marijuana in most public places without receiving a municipal citation.

Decrease in arrests, convictions

A report released Monday by the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office said both marijuana arrests and convictions in Milwaukee County have decreased significantly since 2010.

In Milwaukee County, arrests for marijuana possession dropped from 4,785 in 2010 to 1,927 in 2019. Marijuana possession convictions in Milwaukee County also decreased from 1,285 in 2010 to 96 in 2019.

Although the data showed steep declines in arrests, it also highlighted ongoing racial disparities in enforcement, with African Americans 3.2 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession in Milwaukee County. The conviction rate for marijuana possession was also higher for African Americans than for whites in the county. Racial disparities in arrests and convictions were much higher in other Wisconsin counties, though, compared with Milwaukee.

Ortiz-Velez said before the vote Thursday that she hopes other areas in Wisconsin will follow suit.

“The counties and cities should do what they need to do to protect the people they serve and express their will,” she said. “They have the power to make changes at a local level.”

Supervisor Patti Logsdon, who represents Oak Creek and portions of Franklin on the County Board, said before the vote that she is not in favor of the measure. Logsdon said calls from her constituents showed more support for legalizing medical, rather than recreational marijuana.

“Right now, marijuana is an illegal drug. Reducing the fine for possession while it is still illegal may encourage people to use it because they think the consequences aren’t serious,” Logsdon said in an email to NNS. “Overall, the people I’ve talked with are very concerned with this proposal, especially employers, because it essentially condones illegal drug use.”

Laura Manriquez, a South Side resident who has run unsuccessfully for the state Legislature, also opposed the measure. She said it was not good for the safety and security of the community and that marijuana use does not help people beat drug addictions.

“This is a gateway drug and does not prevent individuals from using opioids,” Manriquez wrote in an e-comment during a recent meeting of the county’s Judiciary, Safety, and General Services Committee.

Ortiz-Velez disagrees.

“Alcohol and oxycodone and other pharmaceuticals are more of a gateway drug than marijuana, and the harm they cause is more than marijuana,” she said. “I have met people who have confided in me that marijuana has helped them get off all the pharmaceutical drugs.”

Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, proposed legalizing marijuana is his biennial budget, but the measure is not expected to gain much support from the Republican-controlled Legislature, as with previous attempts at legalization.

Emilio De Torre, executive director of the Milwaukee Turners, a local nonprofit that focuses on social justice issues, said legalization doesn’t equate to support for marijuana use but helps address racial disparities in enforcement.

“It would be a nice step against the failed war on drugs,“ he said. Legalization, he added, would also allow law enforcement to focus on more important things, such as violence.
Sam Woods contributed to this report.

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