November 19, 2020

Madison, Wisconsin, will stop arresting people for marijuana possession

In a sign of progress for Wisconsin, the city council of Madison voted to update its laws decriminalizing marijuana use and possession on Tuesday.

Wisconsin has been one of America’s most stubborn prohibitionist states. Even as more conservative states have legalized medical marijuana and adult-use cannabis, Wisconsin state law still holds stiff criminal penalties for all forms of the substance.

In Madison, anyone 18 or older may possess up to an ounce of cannabis without fear of arrest. Just don’t do it outside the city limits.

The state’s capital city is a progressive outlier, however, and it passed a law back in 1977 that allowed people to possess and consume marijuana in private dwellings. This week the council brought that law into the 21st century, decriminalizing cannabis throughout the city, with the usual caveats made for school property and motor vehicles.

Now, anyone age 18 and older can possess and consume up to 28 grams (just under an ounce) of cannabis on public and private property—so long as they have the permission of the building owner, landlord, or tenant.

“I am pleased that Madison will largely wipe out any arrest for cannabis, or cannabis-related paraphernalia … so it will greatly diminish the existing discretion that Madison cops have to issue citations for possession of cannabis and for cannabis and drug paraphernalia,” Alderman Mike Verveer, the author and co-sponsor of the legislation, told the Badger Herald.

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Still against state law, but not enforced in the city

Although Wisconsin state law still still makes it a crime to possess any amount of cannabis—even in Madison—the city’s police department won’t pass charges for anyone who has 28 grams or less to the Dane County District Attorney’s office.

The new rules:

  • In addition to the 28 ounces, people are allowed to possess paraphernalia for cannabis use.
  • Fines connected with violations, such as consumption on private property without the the property owner’s consent, are reduced.
  • Smoking cannabis is still prohibited in places where cigarettes and other tobacco products and devices are banned, or for people “in a motor vehicle which is in operation.”
  • People are not allowed to possess marijuana within 1,000 feet of a school or on school buses.

The new law isn’t without loopholes. Police may still pursue charges for possession with intent to deliver, even for amounts under 28 grams.

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Will the state follow suit?

Verveer, who wrote and co-sponsored the updated ordinance, was quoted in the Wisconsin State Journal as saying the changes were long overdue, and that it was “preposterous and outrageous” that the state legislature had not yet legalized recreational marijuana like, for example, neighboring Michigan.

Melissa Sargent, a state representative from Madison, has introduced legislation that would fully legalize recreational cannabis, but her work has yet to fully gain traction.

In a non-binding referendum in 2018, 76% of Dane County residents voted in favor of passing adult-use cannabis, Verveer pointed out. Dane County encompasses Madison and its suburbs.

As in many other American cities, enforcement of marijuana laws in Madison has been often tilted against Black residents and other minorities, Verveer pointed out. A 20-year study by the Madison Police Department found that although cannabis usage was similar among all races, Black people were cited at a higher rate.

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Dave Howard

Dave Howard is a national magazine editor and award-winning author. His most recent book is Chasing Phil: The Adventures of Two Undercover Agents With the World's Most Charming Con Man.

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