Gov. Tony Evers says his plan to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana would help address “racial disparities, economic inequity, and cycles of poverty” statewide.
This came as part of the administration’s rollout of a marijuana overhaul, which Evers plans to address as part of his upcoming budget. He is also proposing to legalize medical marijuana and bring Wisconsin’s laws on CBD oil in line with federal regulations.
“This is not just about access to health care; this is also about connecting the dots between racial disparities and economic inequity,” Evers said yesterday in a Capitol news conference.
But Assembly Speaker Robin Vos indicated while he’s open to legalizing marijuana for medical purposes, the proposal unveiled yesterday “appears to go too far.”
“It makes it easier to get recreational marijuana and provides a pathway to full legalization, which I do not support,” the Rochester Republican said.
Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business group, also responded by urging the guv to “rethink his plan to decriminalize marijuana for recreational use.” WMC says business leaders in the state are concerned about the impact of full legalization on workplace safety.
“There is not enough research on this issue to determine if marijuana can be used safely, and there is plenty of research that shows it impairs an individual’s ability to operate equipment safely,” said Kurt Bauer, WMC president & CEO.
Still, Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals says Evers is “doing the right thing” by making cannabis a treatment option for people with cancer, seizures and glaucoma.
The health provider group also calls medical marijuana “an especially important tool in our state’s battle to fight the opioid epidemic.”
Evers’ proposal would decriminalize possession, manufacturing or distribution of 25 grams or less marijuana, an amount one expert compared to a pack and a half of cigarettes.
Currently, 13 states have decriminalized the drug but not adopted full legalization. The measure unveiled yesterday would put Wisconsin on par with the median amount those states have decriminalized.
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws compares the penalties for first-time offenders in those 13 states to “a minor traffic violation.”
An overview of Evers plan from the guv’s office didn’t provide specifics on what penalties, if any, would remain.
The proposal would also establish a process to remove criminal charges for those who have been previously convicted of marijuana offenses at the same 25 gram threshold.
A Department of Corrections spokeswoman said the agency is “still gathering some information internally” and could not provide the number of people currently incarcerated that would be impacted by Evers’ proposal.
The guv went on to say that the current criminal justice system is incarcerating people — particularly people of color — for non-violent drug offenses, which he said “doesn’t make our state any stronger or safer.”
Rep. David Crowley, chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, agreed and pointed to a 2002 study from the Justice Policy Institute that he said highlighted the “disproportionate burden placed on communities of color” by the criminal justice system.
“Right here in Dane County, black men have been locked up for drug offenses nearly 100 times more than their white counterparts,” the Milwaukee Dem said.
“Even more troubling is studies that show the disparity is only getting larger, not smaller.”
On the whole, a 2013 American Civil Liberties Union report found that even though African-Americans and whites use marijuana at similar rates, blacks are around six times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than their white counterparts in the state. According to the report, Wisconsin has the fifth highest rate in the country.
The same report concluded that the disparity between African-Americans arrested for marijuana possession in Wisconsin and whites arrested for the same charge increased by 153 percent between 2001 and 2010, the third highest rate in the country.
Crowley said he believed the proposal is a good first step in helping to address some of the problems he sees with the “unjust and racially disproportionate” criminal justice system.
In addition to Vos, other GOP lawmakers voiced opposition to the proposed changes.
Sen. Van Wanggaard, chair of the Senate’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, said he would never support the legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes. The Racine Republican said he could support medical marijuana under certain circumstances. He said that included having the medical marijuana dispensed by a healthcare provider.
But he said Evers’ proposal doesn’t belong in the state budget and he would vote against the document if the final version includes it.
“I think we could surely have a discussion, but what he’s doing is not acceptable to me,” he said.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald referred questions on the proposal to the Juneau Republican’s previous statements, in which he said he does not support the legalization of medical marijuana.
See a background document on Evers’ proposal:
See the Justice Policy Institute study:
See the ACLU report: