Bipartisan Wisconsin Lawmakers Officially Introduce Marijuana Decriminalization Bill

Bipartisan Wisconsin Lawmakers Officially Introduce Marijuana Decriminalization Bill

A bipartisan group of Wisconsin lawmakers have formally introduced a measure to decriminalize marijuana possession after previewing the proposal earlier this month. Sponsors hope the limited, noncommercial reform will win enough support to clear the state’s GOP-controlled legislature and become law in parallel with a separate limited medical cannabis bill that Republican leaders say will be filed in January.

Assembly Bill 861, introduced by Reps. Shae Sortwell (R), Sylvia Ortiz-Velez (D) and Dave Considine (D), along with Sen. Lena Taylor (D), would remove the threat of jail time for simple possession of up to 14 grams of cannabis, replacing criminal charges with a $100 civil penalty.

Under current law, the offense is subject to a maximum $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail.

People caught using or possessing marijuana would also not need to appear in court under change proposed in the bill. Instead, they could simply pay the $100 fine, which would be considered by the court as a plea of no contest.

The measure would also stop courts from “counting” possession convictions involving up to 28 grams of marijuana, meaning people would not be charged as repeat offenders for possession small amounts of cannabis. For larger amounts, the bill would reduce the imprisonment time for repeat convictions from three and a half years down to 90 days.

Possession of drug paraphernalia, meanwhile, would be punishable by a $10 civil forfeiture under the proposal—down from as much as $500 and 30 days in jail.

“For small, simple possessions of marijuana, Wisconsin should not be throwing people in prison,” sponsors said in a cosponsorship memo about a month ago, noting 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.

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.

Another change in AB 861 would limit the liability of employers who choose not to test workers for THC, although that provision wouldn’t apply to positions overseen by the federal Department of Transportation or jobs involving safety and security.

The measure has been referred to the Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety ahead of the start of the state’s legislative session next month.

“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 in the sponsorship memo. “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 also pointed to more than half a dozen other states that have enacted similar reforms.

“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.”

Current state 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.

While advocates would generally welcome any measure to end marijuana-related arrests in the state, decriminalization falls short of the more ambitious goal of enacting comprehensive legalization, which is being championed by Democrats such as former Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard (D). In November, Agard called on voters to pressure their representatives to hold a hearing on her reform legislation.

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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, for example by stripping marijuana proposals from the governor’s budget requests. GOP leaders have insisted that they’ve been working on medical cannabis legislation in the background, but that has yet to be seen.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) said recently that a limited medical cannabis bill will be unveiled next month, adding that he’s “pretty confident” it will pass in 2024 “with just Republican votes” because Democrats are insisting on broader recreational marijuana legalization.

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 Agard has pointed out, Republicans wield control of both chambers and could theoretically move whatever version of the reform they’d like at any point.

The state Department of Revenue recently released a fiscal estimate of the legalization proposal’s expected economic impact, which projected the reform would generate nearly $170 million in annual tax revenue.

Meanwhile, Gov. Tony Evers (D) in November granted another round of pardons, including dozens for people with prior marijuana convictions.

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