Milwaukee, WI – Marijuana possession busts are expensive. According to the ACLU of Wisconsin, there were 20,963 marijuana arrests in Wisconsin in 2018. That’s 57% of all drug arrests in the state. The illegal status of marijuana contributes heavily to racial disparities and mass incarceration through charges for non-violent drug offenses. People of color are four to seven times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than their white counterparts. Yet, nearly 60 percent of Wisconsin residents support the legalization of recreational marijuana. Prohibition is causing harm to marginalized communities through interactions with the police and criminal justice system. Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers has a plan to legalize and tax marijuana and cut costs to the state’s criminal justice system.
Evers says his proposed plan could generate $165 million in government revenue. Half of those funds – $80 million – would be reinvested into an equity fund for low-income communities. $34 million of the funds generated by legal marijuana sales would be used to invest in school districts for rural communities. A number of schools in rural Wisconsin have been forced to shut down over the last ten years, local officials say.
In addition, Evers wants people convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana to be able to have their records expunged. According to the ACLU, a single arrest costs law enforcement agencies $439 per arrest. If we look at Wisconsin’s marijuana possession arrest rates for 2018, the estimated cost amounts to $9.2 million. Keep in mind that this does not factor in the costs of jailing those who have been arrested ($144 per day in Milwaukee County) with prosecution costing $167 apiece. Incarcerating a single individual costs Wisconsin $31,000 per year.
People arrested for marijuana possession are often required to miss work to appear in court or take drug tests. This causes some to lose their jobs and in some cases, their driver’s licenses.
21-year-old Milwaukee Black trans man Koffee (an alias to protect his privacy) used marijuana to treat fatigue and arthritis related to his auto-immune disorder, lupus. After a severe car accident, Koffee found himself hospitalized and handcuffed to a bed after a surgery that removed a third of his intestines. Because trace amounts of marijuana were found in his system, he was charged with operating while intoxicated.
Milwaukee officials have recently dropped fines for marijuana possession from $250-$500 to one dollar. Koffee says lowering the fine still leaves $500-$600 in court fees.
“You actually have to have the finances to go to court,” he says. “It’s still illegal [in Wisconsin], so after so many offenses, you get charged with a felony. They’re enabling a racist system.”
Wisconsin state law still maintains harsh maximum penalties for marijuana possession. As a result, second-time offenders are automatically charged as felons, thus losing their right to vote for the remainder of their sentences – even if they are released under supervision of a parole officer.
Since the accident and his involvement in the court system, Koffee must be absolutely sober. He has received legal counsel and his court date is pending.
Despite being thrust into the legal system, Koffee feels that he is thriving. “Anything the system tries to take, that should be a choice of the people has not and will not succeed,” he said passionately. “You cannot stop a seed from blooming. We shouldn’t be attacking something [marijuana] that’s found in nature that hasn’t killed anyone.”
Wisconsin is past due for marijuana legalization and there is an opportunity with Governor Evers’ proposed marijuana legalization plan to shift power away from institutions of policing and into the hands of community members.