Wisconsin weed laws are half-baked


Leo Costello

Map of US marijuana legislation

Bethanie Gengler, News Editor

On Jan. 1, 2020, Illinois will officially legalize recreational marijuana and Wisconsin will be surrounded by weed.
Illinois will join 10 other states that have legalized recreational marijuana and 33 states that have legalized medical marijuana. Bordering state Minnesota allows medical use while Michigan allows recreational use. Canada has also legalized recreational pot.

Wisconsin residents can now drive just a short distance to purchase legal weed that becomes illegal the moment they cross the border back into Wisconsin.

Marijuana is still federally regulated. Transporting weed across state lines, even from a state where it was legally purchased, is a federal offense.

In Wisconsin, charges for a first-offense possession of marijuana can carry up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Repeat offenders can be charged with a felony and face up to 3.5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
At UW Oshkosh, University Police responded to 139 calls related to marijuana in 2018 and made 71 drug arrests on campus.

Last November, 16 Wisconsin counties had marijuana advisory referendums on their ballots that were supported by a solid majority of voters. According to a Marquette Law School Poll, 58% of Wisconsin residents believe marijuana should be legalized and regulated similarly to alcohol.

The path to legalization

In Wisconsin, legalization progress comes slowly. Certain Wisconsin jurisdictions have declined to prosecute marijuana possession in small amounts, and it may be treated as an ordinance violation with a ticket.
In 2018, members of the Oshkosh Common Council wanted to reduce the fine for possession of marijuana from $325 to $25 but were only successful in getting it reduced to $200 plus court costs.

Oshkosh City Council member Jake Krause, who supported the fine reduction, said the fine amount would have depended on the weight of the marijuana, which could vary if it were mixed in with food or other substances.

“The city police officers basically said it would be too difficult to weigh it, and they wanted a one-fine-fits-all type thing,” Krause said. “We settled at a $200 fine, which was a compromise.”

Oshkosh Mayor Lori Palmeri was a member of the city council in 2018 and supported the proposal.

“I did support a reduction from the $325 [fine] because I felt that for people who were lower income, that it was kind of a burden of a fine,” Palmeri said. “As far as my beliefs on legalization of cannabis, I’m supportive of the medical and I’m neutral on the recreational at this point.”

In February, Gov. Tony Evers proposed a plan to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana and legalize medical marijuana. His plan also allowed expungement for possession charges.

Winnebago County District Attorney Christian Gossett cited the Portugal Model as a study on decriminalization.
“They decriminalized personal-use drugs, which is a 10-day supply or less of a drug absent any evidence of dealing,” he said. “What they did was they started all these treatment facilities and services.”

From decriminalization in 1999 to 2015, Portugal saw an 80% decrease in overdose fatalities.
However, Evers’ plan for decriminalization of marijuana was “dead on arrival at the legislature” according to Wisconsin State Sen. Patrick Testin.

Testin, a Republican from Stevens Point, joined Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach and Wisconsin State Assembly Rep. Chris Taylor last month to introduce a bipartisan bill to legalize medical cannabis in Wisconsin.

Medical cannabis bill

Under the bill, qualifying patients who receive a recommendation from their doctor would be able to purchase and grow marijuana. Conditions that would qualify a patient for medical cannabis include cancer, HIV, hepatitis C, chronic pain, PTSD and others.

Testin said he became a believer in compassionate care through the use of cannabis when his grandfather was dying of lung and bone cancer, which caused him to lose his appetite, weight and much of his strength.

“It was essentially a terminal diagnosis for him and he had to make a very tough decision to go outside the law and essentially break the law to get marijuana,” he said. “It was the only thing that gave him his appetite and helped him keep his food down.”

Testin said seeing his grandfather benefit from medical marijuana was an eye-opening experience.
“I firmly believe it gave him more time that he otherwise wouldn’t have had,” he said. He added marijuana has fewer side effects and long-term risks than opioids.

“I’ve heard from so many who have talked about their issues with opioid abuse and oftentimes, when they use opioids it leads to more dangerous drugs such as heroin or fentanyl,” he said. “They’ve been able to wean themselves off of these drugs by self-medicating with cannabis and so I firmly believe there is opportunity and potential to incorporate medical cannabis as a safer alternative.”

The proposed bill to legalize medical cannabis contains regulations including a registry system for patients and a licensing system for growers, producers and sellers. The bill also contains a homegrown provision that would allow patients to grow a certain number of plants under a dry weight limit of three ounces.

“We want the ability for people, in a regulated environment, to grow their own medicine and do it safely at home,” Testin said. The next step for the proposed medical cannabis legislation is for it to be referred to a standing committee and then for a public hearing to be held.

Gossett said he isn’t sure legalizing medical marijuana is the right move. He said people may attempt to obtain medical marijuana for recreational use fraudulently and it could also cause issues of classism.

“The people who have insurance can go see the doctor when they want to, can get their medical marijuana, and the people who can’t, the inner-city, the impoverished populations, end up illegally possessing marijuana,” he said. “So I don’t know that I’m a big fan of medical marijuana.”

Incentives of legalization

States that have approved recreational marijuana use have experienced financial incentives. In Colorado, legal marijuana sales in 2018 brought in about $270 million in taxes. In comparison, the state brought in $45 million in taxes on alcohol that same year. The state has brought in more than $1 billion in total revenue from 2014 to August 2019 from marijuana sales.

The city of Aurora, Colorado, has used the revenue earned from legal pot to help the homeless, fund road and transportation projects and to finance recreation centers in growing areas of the city.

Decriminalization of cannabis would save Wisconsin $30 million in decreased criminal justice costs, according to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s La Follette School of Public Affairs.

“If you take a look at our neighbors, whether it’s Michigan, Minnesota or Illinois, they’ve all incorporated medical cannabis programs and I think we should follow suit,” Testin said.

Gossett said to consider the amount of harm that could be done by legalizing marijuana.

“What is the risk of harm? We’re understandably upset about the 73,000 overdose deaths last year. We should also be upset about the 88,000 alcohol-related deaths per year,” he said. “And how many people are dying from marijuana?”