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Wisconsin marijuana decriminalization bill introduced

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Massive public interest in marijuana law reform has sparked the introduction of yet another cannabis bill this session in the Wisconsin legislature, this time a measure to decriminalize possession of small amounts of the herb.

Assembly Bill 891 was introduced March 27, 2014 by Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) and cosponsored by Representatives Johnson, Barnes, Hebl, Sinicki, Sargent, Hulsey, Pope, Berceau, Pasch and Senator Lena Taylor. All sponsors are Democrats. AB891 was referred to the Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice.

A statewide decriminalization bill has yet to pass despite decades of attempts. In the 1970s, repeated attempts at statewide decriminalization failed, despite the support of high ranking state officials. Lawmakers later passed legislation allowing local decriminalization ordinances, but local officials use of them is spotty. Only perhaps Dane County, where the DA has an official policy that local ordinances must be used in all cases of 25 grams or under, comes closest to true decriminalization.

According to the Legislative Reference Bureau Analysis:

Under current law, a person may not possess marijuana or another substance containing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). In general, a person who violates this prohibition is guilty of a misdemeanor and may be fined not more than $1,000, imprisoned for not more than six months, or both. A person who commits a second or subsequent violation is guilty of a Class I felony and may be fined up to $10,000, imprisoned for up to three years and six months, or both. Current law also authorizes counties and municipalities to enact ordinances prohibiting the possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana. A violation of such an ordinance is a civil offense punishable by a forfeiture (a civil fine). The ordinance, however, cannot be used to prosecute a person who has previously been convicted of possessing marijuana.

Under this bill, a person who commits a first offense of possession of THC commits a civil offense, punishable by a forfeiture of not less than $150 nor more than $300. Under the bill, a person who commits a second offense of possession of THC is guilty of a Class C misdemeanor and may be fined up to $500, imprisoned for up to 30 days, or both. A person who commits a third offense is guilty of a Class A misdemeanor, and may be fined up to $10,000, imprisoned for up to nine months, or both. Under the bill, a person who commits a fourth or subsequent possession of THC offense, or who has been convicted of a prior crime related to any controlled substance except possession of THC, is guilty of a Class I felony and may be fined up to $10,000, imprisoned for up to three years and six months, or both.

The bill allows a county or municipality to enact ordinances that make the first possession of any amount of marijuana a civil offense, punishable by a forfeiture. The ordinance, however, cannot be used to prosecute a person who has committed a prior offense of possessing THC.

Similarly, the bill provides that a person under 17 years of age (juvenile) who is found to have committed a first violation of possession of THC is subject to the dispositions specified in the Juvenile Justice Code for a juvenile who violates a civil law rather than to the delinquency dispositions specified in the Juvenile Justice Code for a juvenile who violates a criminal law. Under the bill, a juvenile who is found to have committed a first violation of possession of THC may be ordered to pay a forfeiture not to exceed $50 or to participate in a teen court program, in community service work, or in an alcohol or other drug abuse treatment or education program.

Because this bill creates a new crime or revises a penalty for an existing crime, the Joint Review Committee on Criminal Penalties may be requested to prepare a report concerning the proposed penalty and the costs or savings that are likely to result if the bill is enacted.

For further information see the state and local fiscal estimate, which will be printed as an appendix to this bill.

AB891 joins a host of pro-reform bills including AB480/SB363, the Jacki Rickert Medical Cannabis Act, sponsored by Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison) and Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton), an industrial hemp bill AB638, sponsored by Rep. Amy Sue Vruwink (D-Milladore) and Rep. Melissa Sargent's (D-Madison) AB810, which would completely remove criminal penalties for possession and sales of small amounts of cannabis for adult use.

Unfortunately, cannabis reform legislation is mostly dead for the 2013-2014 session. The Assembly has already met for their final regular session and the State Senate is meeting for a final time Tuesday, April 1. At this point the only bill still with a possibility of passage is the narrowly focused CBD hemp oil bill AB726/SB685, which was moved from Leah Vukmir's committee who failed to hold a hearing on the bill to the committee on Senate Organization "pursuant to Senate Rule 46(2)(c)." The CBD bill received unprecedented support from the prohibitionist Wisconsin Medical Society, which has opposed every effort to pass comprehensive medical cannabis legislation for all patients.

[UPDATE (3/28/2014 12:53 PM) The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is reporting that AB726/SB685 will receive a State Senate floor vote Tuesday April 1, when the final session is held.]

A Republican-sponsored measure, AB164/SB150, which would allow local government units to target cannabis offenders who the local has declined to prosecute, passed both houses. In the Senate, six Democrats joined Republicans in passing SB150. The measure now sits on Governor Scott Walker's desk, where it has been for some time, awaiting his signature or veto.

Also, this coming Tuesday, Dane County voters will weigh in Referendum #2, which asks, "Should the state government enact legislation legalizing marijuana?" While the referendum is advisory only, it will provide a barometer of public opinion on cannabis law reform in Wisconsin. While Dane County trends liberal, cannabis legalization is not the sole turf of progressives, and the Dane County results will be relevant in looking at statewide support.

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