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New Wisconsin Decriminalization Bill May Actually Increase Fines for Pot Possession

· Nov 20, 2021
A bipartisan group of Wisconsin lawmakers have proposed a bill that could roll back several individual cities' efforts to decriminalize minor pot possession.  Unlike its neigh ...

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A bipartisan group of Wisconsin lawmakers have proposed a bill that could roll back several individual cities' efforts to decriminalize minor pot possession. 

Unlike its neighbors to the north, east, and south, Wisconsin continues to completely prohibit cannabis possession and use. Under the current law, minor marijuana possession is considered a misdemeanor, punishable by up to $1,000 in fines and up to 6 months in jail. Some liberal cities and counties have voted to do away with these punishments, though. Last year, Milwaukee County reduced the penalty for possessing up to 28 grams of pot to a simple $1 fine, Madison completely decriminalized minor possession, and other cities have implemented similar ordinances.

State Representatives Sylvia Ortiz-Velez (D) and Shae Sortwell (R) just proposed a new bill that would reduce the maximum state fine for possession of up to 14 grams of weed to $250. For most of Wisconsin, this bill would force local law enforcement to cut their fines for minor possession down to a quarter of the current amount. But the bill would also impose a minimum fine of $100 for minor possession, which would force cities that have already decriminalized weed to raise their penalties. 

Ortiz-Velez, who actually helped implement Milwaukee's pot decriminalization ordinance, believes the bill would eliminate confusion over county-level weed laws. "Part of the problem is people in Milwaukee, if they leave the county and they're in another county ... they don't really know that the rule only applies to this county," she said at a news conference, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "When people are confused about how the laws apply, within patchworks, that makes it harder."

The proposal still leaves room for confusion, though. The bill would only impose the minimum fine on quantities of up to 14 grams of weed, but would still allow individual municipalities to create their own rules for larger amounts of pot. So, if the bill were to pass, decriminalization laws in cities like Madison would still apply to amounts over 14 grams. Because of this, someone caught with under 14 grams of pot in Milwaukee could be charged $100, while someone busted with between 14 and 28 grams would only have to pay a single buck.

Although the new bill may gain traction in the state House, several state Senators have already voiced their opposition. "It is important as legislators that we honor the work that is being done at a local level ... to address cannabis policy in the best way they can given our state’s laws and I am concerned there are provisions in this bill that would undo some of that work," said state Sen. Melissa Agard (D) to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

State Sen. Kelda Roys (D) told the Sentinel that the new bill “would be worse... for communities like Madison and Milwaukee, which are very diverse communities that have large populations of people of color who are disproportionately targeted by the criminal justice system.”

On the plus side, the bill would prevent prosecutors from using cannabis possession as an excuse to bump up penalties for people who are busted with pot and other drugs at the same time. The bill would also reduce the fine for marijuana paraphernalia possession to $10 and grant liability protection for businesses that choose to end workplace cannabis testing for their employees.