Another Fight Over Local Control: This One May Sink a Bill Decriminalizing Pot

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By Jonathon Sadowski

April 12, 2021

Introduced in three legislative sessions, parties now disagreeing on a change that would remove local control over penalties.

A Republican-authored bill with bipartisan support would decriminalize small amounts of marijuana statewide, but it has gone nowhere despite being introduced in three consecutive legislative sessions during which Republicans have been in overwhelming control of the Assembly and Senate.

The proposed legislation, reintroduced last month by Rep. Shae Sortwell (R-Two Rivers) and Sen. Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls), would reduce the penalty for possessing up to 10 grams of marijuana to a $100 forfeiture. Under current state law, possession of any amount is a misdemeanor criminal offense punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and six months in prison.

“The overwhelming majority of people in Wisconsin [do not] feel that the mere possession of small amounts of marijuana should ever result in criminal penalties,” Sortwell said in an interview.

Earlier: Evers Is Trying to Bring Legal Weed to Wisconsin. Here’s Who It Would Help.

Sortwell first introduced the bill in the 2019-20 legislative session, and it received no support at all from other Republicans; it was the same bill first introduced by former Rep. Adam Jarchow (R-Balsam Lake) in the 2017-18 session, which garnered bipartisan support. This session, Sortwell added a provision to the bill that would prevent communities from instituting fines lower than $100 for possession of 10 grams or less.

“I introduced a pre-emption clause in there to see if it might get me some more Republican support,” Sortwell said of the language that would remove a degree of local control.

That appeared to work, as Bernier and Reps. Rob Brooks (R-Saukville), Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay), and Michael Schraa (R-Oshkosh) signed on. Kitchens, Schraa, and Bernier had supported the bill when Jarchow introduced it, but did not cosponsor it in Sortwell’s first attempt. None of their offices responded to requests for comment.

But the move came at the expense of Democratic support; all three Democratic senators who supported it last session are not cosponsoring it this session, and 10 Democratic representatives dropped off the bill as well. 

“I am not in favor of pre-emption, and that’s one of the parts of this bill that we actually want to work with the authors to see if we can get them comfortable taking that out,” said Rep. David Bowen (D-Milwaukee), who cosponsored the bill in both sessions Sortwell has introduced it. 

Places like Milwaukee County, Madison, Racine, and Eau Claire have fines ranging from $1 to $75 for possession of small amounts of marijuana. The bill does not prohibit lower fines for greater amounts, meaning the bill would make it a bigger punishment to be caught with 1 or 2 grams of marijuana than to be caught with as much as 25 grams in cities with more expansive policies.

Bowen said he also wants the bill to decriminalize a larger amount of marijuana than 10 grams.

“It’s like when folks that are used to drinking, are used to a full glass, and you say it’s only allowed to have a shot-sized [drink],” Bowen said. “So, let’s put things into perspective so that we are being honest of what people might actually carry on them.”

Sortwell said he is open to increasing the amount to 14 grams, about half an ounce. 

The bill’s fate this session remains to be seen. Sortwell said he is hopeful the bill will at least get a committee hearing this year. As more younger, libertarian-leaning Republicans take office, Sortwell said, the state will be more likely to see a greater level of bipartisan support for marijuana reform. 

A 2019 Marquette Law School poll found 59% of Wisconsinites support full marijuana legalization, and 83% support legalizing medical marijuana.

“Leadership in government often lags behind the general population,” Sortwell said, describing marijuana reform as a broadly “generational issue.”

Gov. Tony Evers included full marijuana legalization in his 2021-23 budget proposal, but Republicans, including Sortwell, balked at including such a measure in the budget on the grounds that a budget was no place for such a large policy change. 

It will ultimately be up to Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) to bring Sortwell’s bill and further reforms before the full Legislature for a vote. Neither LeMahieu nor Vos’ offices responded to requests for comment.

“There’s better things that we can spend time and money on than going after people who possess small amounts of marijuana,” said Rep. Nick Milroy (D-South Range), who is cosponsoring the bill this session but did not put his name on it last session.


CATEGORIES: Law and Policy


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