Wisconsin Democrats introduced a bill on Wednesday that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of cannabis in the state, but chances of the measure succeeding in the Republican-led legislature appear to be slim. Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes said on Wednesday that the penalties currently paid by those convicted of cannabis possession are unjust.
“Possession of small amounts of marijuana is no reason for anyone to serve a prison sentence, lose out on a job, nor lose their voting rights,” said Barnes.
Under the measure introduced on Wednesday, possession, distribution, and manufacturing of up to 28 grams of marijuana or two cannabis plants would be decriminalized. Currently, possession of small amounts of marijuana is treated as a misdemeanor for the first offense, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and a jail sentence of up to six months. Subsequent offenses can be prosecuted as a felony with a sentence of up to three and a half years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
The Democrats’ bill would also prohibit police from using the smell of marijuana as probable cause for arrest and establish a process to dismiss previous convictions for possessing small amounts of pot.
Racial Bias in Drug Arrests
Rep. Sheila Stubbs, the bill’s author, said that decriminalization would address the racial bias prevalent in the enforcement of the nation’s drug laws.
“Wisconsin has among the worst racial disparities in the country,” Stubbs said. “The mass incarceration of African American men who have been disproportionately charged and imprisoned for low-level marijuana offenses is something that must be urgently addressed.”
“We need to rethink and modernize our marijuana laws in Wisconsin,” she added.
Black people accounted for 72% of arrests for possession of less than 25 grams of marijuana in Milwaukee between 2012 and 2015, despite making up just 39% of the population, according to research by the Public Policy Forum. Numerous studies nationwide have shown that blacks and whites use cannabis at approximately the same rate.
Rep. David Crowley, also a Democrat, demanded action from his colleagues.
“How many more people have to be lost before we actually get the courage to do something about it?” he asked.
Republicans Not On Board
But despite data from Marquette University Law School that shows 59% of respondents support the full legalization of cannabis, Republicans are giving no indication that they will support the decriminalization bill. In April, Republicans, who control both houses of the Wisconsin legislature, killed a similar proposal to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.
“We’re not going to decriminalize it so people can carry around baggies of weed all over the state,” Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said in February.
Kit Beyer, a spokeswoman for Vos, said that the Speaker supports limited medical marijuana but is opposed to decriminalization. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has also said that he will not support the bill.
“I’ve long been an opponent to any type of marijuana legalization and doubt that any proposals currently being floated will gain support from Republicans in the Senate,” Fitzgerald said.