New Bipartisan Wisconsin Bill Would Decriminalize Marijuana Possession - Read of Green
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New Bipartisan Wisconsin Bill Would Decriminalize Marijuana Possession

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Bipartisan Wisconsin lawmakers will soon be introducing a bill to decriminalize low-level marijuana possession—an incremental reform that they hope will break the logjam on cannabis policy in the GOP-controlled legislature.

As other legislators push for broader adult-use legalization, Reps. Shae Sortwell (R) and Sylvia Ortiz-Velez (D), along with Sen. Lena Taylor (D), are sponsoring the simple decriminalization legislation, which would also give employers more discretion in workplace cannabis testing policies.

The bill would make possession of up to 14 grams of cannabis punishable by a $100 civil forfeiture, without the threat of jail time. It would also stop courts from “counting” possession convictions involving up to 28 grams, meaning people would not be charged as repeat offenders who could face more serious penalties.

“For small, simple possessions of marijuana, Wisconsin should not be throwing people in prison,” the sponsors said in a cosponsorship memo, first reported by the Wisconsin State Journal, late last week. They pointed out that the state makes an average of 15,485 arrests per year over the minor offense, which is currently punishable by a maximum $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail.

“North Dakota, New Hampshire, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Nebraska have passed legislation that removes jail time for possessing small amounts of marijuana (not including full legalization states),” they said. “It is time for Wisconsin to join the national discussion.”

The penalty for possession or use of marijuana paraphernalia would be similarly reduced to a maximum $10 civil forfeiture without jail time.

As it stands, current law allows local governments to enact their own ordinances banning cannabis possession and imposing additional fines. This legislation would preempt those localities by making it so they would need to set a forfeiture amount for possession of 14 grams or less that is at least $100 but no more than $250.

“Under the bill, the court may impose, instead of the forfeiture amount, no less than 16 hours nor more than 40 hours of community service for violating an ordinance prohibiting the possession of 14 grams or less of marijuana,” a legislative analysis that was shared with Marijuana Moment says. “The bill does not change the current law that allows local governments discretion in the forfeiture amount imposed for possession of more than 14 grams of marijuana.”

People who receive the fine for cannabis or paraphernalia possession would need to be given the opportunity to submit a deposit for payment in lieu of making a court appearance; the court would have to consider such a deposit a plea of no contest and enter a judgment accordingly.

In addition to decriminalizing possession, the bill would also make it so law enforcement would have additional flexibility in how they choose to handle individual cannabis cases. Police would have the choice of whether or not to book and process a person for possession, though they would still be required to collect certain personal information about them.

This meant to “save time, money, and resources,” the memo says. “The burden placed on local resources, from police focus, man-hours for arrests, paper work, and court appearances, to the court system dockets and public defender costs, would be much better spent on serious, violent crimes.”

Additionally, the legislation would limit liability for employers who choose not to require THC drug testing for job applicants or workers. However, there are exemptions to the discretionary policy. People would still be required to submit to drug screenings for jobs involving a federal contract, U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) compliance or collective bargaining agreements with specific mandates, for example.

“Employers across the country have been discontinuing the long-standing practice of drug testing their employees and prospective employees because it is costly,” the lawmakers said. “Employers in Wisconsin should be given the tools to decide for themselves whether or not they wish to continue drug testing for employment purposes by limiting their liability.”

The sponsors are requesting that lawmakers contact their offices to become cosponsors by Thursday before the bill is formally introduced.

While advocates would generally welcome any measure to end marijuana-related arrests in the state, decriminalization falls short of the more ambitious goals of enacting comprehensive legalization that’s being championed by Democrats such as Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard (D), who is calling on the public to pressure their representatives to hold a hearing on her reform legislation.


Marijuana Moment is tracking more than 1,000 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

Wisconsin has become an island of prohibition in the region, with neighboring Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota each having legalized the plant in recent years. Despite that, the conservative legislature has long resisted even incremental reform—stripping marijuana proposals from the governor’s budget requests, for example. GOP leaders have insisted that they’ve been working on medical cannabis legislation in the background, but that’s yet to be seen.

Another GOP lawmaker in the state, Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R), said recently that Democrats like Agard who are advocating for comprehensive legalization are detracting from efforts to advance incremental reform. But as the minority leader has pointed out, Republicans wield control of both chambers and could theoretically move whatever version of the reform they’d like at any point.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Revenue released a fiscal estimate of its economic impact earlier this month, projecting that the reform would generate nearly $170 million annually in tax revenue.

As legalization stalls, Gov. Tony Evers (D) granted another round of pardons, including dozens issued for people with prior marijuana convictions, last month.

Separately, bipartisan and bicameral Wisconsin lawmakers recently came together to introduce a bill that would create a psilocybin research pilot program in the state.

Read the text of the Wisconsin lawmakers’ marijuana decriminalization bill memo below: 

CO-SPONSORSHIP MEMORANDUM 

TO: All Legislators 

FROM: Representatives Shae Sortwell and Sylvia Ortiz-Velez

Senator Lena Taylor

DATE: Thursday, November 30th

RE: Co-Sponsorship of LRB-0510 relating to: penalties for possession of marijuana, employer liability for not drug testing employees and prospective employees, and providing a penalty.

Deadline: Thursday, December 7th at 5pm 

From 2010-2019, 154,295 arrests were made for possession of marijuana. That is an average of 15,485 per year.

Current law prohibits a person from possessing or attempting to possess marijuana. A person who is convicted of violating the prohibition may be fined not more than $1,000 or imprisoned for not more than six months, or both, for the first conviction and is guilty of a Class I felony for a second or subsequent conviction. 

For small, simple possessions of marijuana, Wisconsin should not be throwing people in prison.

Because marijuana is illegal at the federal level, LRB-0510 does not legalize marijuana. Instead, it reduces the penalties for possessing negligible amounts (from .1gs to 28gs/1oz) and marijuana paraphernalia at the state and local levels, while still maintaining a level of municipal discretion.

Additionally, this bill streamlines law enforcement and the courts’ booking process to save time, money, and resources. The burden placed on local resources, from police focus, man-hours for arrests, paper work, and court appearances, to the court system dockets and public defender costs, would be much better spent on serious, violent crimes.

Furthermore, this bill limits the liability of an employer that does not require an employee or prospective employee to submit to a test for the presence of any tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), synthetic cannabinoid, or a controlled substance analog to THC or a synthetic cannabinoid in his or her system (drug testing) as a condition of employment.

Employers across the country have been discontinuing the long-standing practice of drug testing their employees and prospective employees because it is costly. Employers in Wisconsin should be given the tools to decide for themselves whether or not they wish to continue drug testing for employment purposes by limiting their liability.

North Dakota, New Hampshire, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Nebraska have passed legislation that removes jail time for possessing small amounts of marijuana (not including full legalization states). It is time for Wisconsin to join the national discussion.

Read the text of the cannabis decriminalization bill below: 

States Where Marijuana Is Illegal Typically See Higher Rates Of Treatment Admissions, Federal Study Says

Source: Marijuana Moment

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