MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Possession of small amounts of marijuana would be decriminalized in Wisconsin under a bill that Democratic lawmakers introduced Wednesday in their latest push to loosen Wisconsin's marijuana laws in the face of Republican opposition.
It's past time Wisconsin joined with the 26 other states that have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and other advocates said at a news conference in the state Capitol. They pointed to arrest and incarceration data showing that African Americans in Wisconsin are more likely to be penalized under the current system, denying them opportunities to work, vote, get educated and live a full life.
"How many more people have to be lost before we actually get the courage to do something about it?'' said Rep. David Crowley, of Milwaukee.
Nearly 15,000 adults in Wisconsin were arrested in 2018 for marijuana possession, a 3 percent increase from 2017, according to data from the state Department of Justice. Data from the Department of Corrections shows that prison admissions for black people were higher than whites for marijuana possession in 2016.
In Milwaukee, black people accounted for 72 percent of arrests for possession of less than 25 grams of marijuana, despite making up just 39 percent of the population between 2012 and 2015, according to research by the Public Policy Forum. Numerous studies have shown that black and white people use marijuana at roughly the same rate.
Barnes, who is black and from Milwaukee, said he thinks having small amounts of marijuana possession is a "victimless crime'' and that it's a waste of law enforcement resources to enforce the current law.
"Marijuana is not a reason to serve a prison sentence,'' Barnes said.
A first-time offense for marijuana possession is punishable under state law by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Second and subsequent offenses are felonies punishable by up to 3 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
The bill would decriminalize possessing, distributing and manufacturing up to 28 grams of pot or more than two marijuana plants. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers earlier this year called for decriminalizing up to 25 grams. The bill would also prohibit police from using the smell of marijuana as probable cause to arrest someone. It would also create a process for dismissing convictions involving less than 28 grams of marijuana that occurred prior to the law taking effect.
Democrats this year have also introduced separate bills to legalize both medical and recreational marijuana.
"We need to rethink and modernize our marijuana laws in Wisconsin,'' said Rep. Sheila Stubbs, co-sponsor of the decriminalization bill.
Republicans have shown little interest in changing the laws.
They killed Evers' proposals this year to decriminalize small amounts and to legalize medical marijuana. They've staunchly opposed legalizing recreational marijuana, while there is a bipartisan bill to legalize it for medical purposes.
But Republicans showed no signs of budging Wednesday.
"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,'' said Scott Fitzgerald, the Senate's majority leader and a candidate for Congress.
There is not support for it among Assembly Republicans either, said Speaker Robin Vos' spokeswoman Kit Beyer. Vos, who has been open to a limited form of medical marijuana, remains opposed to decriminalization, Beyer said.
"We're not going to decriminalize it so people can carry around baggies of weed all over the state,'' Vos said in February.
Despite Republican opposition, there appears to be broad support in Wisconsin for some form of marijuana legalization.
The Marquette University Law School poll in April showed 83 percent of respondents support legalizing medical marijuana and 59 percent back full legalization.