In 2016, the Wisconsin State Council on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Prevention Committee (SCAODA) released a 72 page report with recommendations on how to reduce the public health impact of marijuana in the community. They recommended that Wisconsin not legalize marijuana and instead recommended that those with possession and use crimes continue to be thrown in jail.
However, Wisconsin’s capital city of Madison decided in 2019 to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana.
Then on Nov. 17, Madison’s City Council moved to further decriminalize marijuana by passing an ordinance that no longer punishes people with paraphernalia and allows people 18 years and older to possess 28 grams or less of marijuana on public and private property — as long as they have permission from the property owner.
Fines for violating this ordinance will only result in a $1 fee.
So why has Wisconsin’s capital city enforced more lenient rules surrounding marijuana, but not the rest of the state? Why does the state continue to enforce harsh, outdated laws that no longer serve our contemporary times? Why does Wisconsin not at least follow the lead of neighboring states like Illinois in legalizing the substance, or at least come close to Minnesota in decriminalizing marijuana up to 1.5 ounces?
By keeping marijuana illegal and criminalized, Wisconsin is furthering the cycle of hurt and mass incarceration. Not only is it tearing families apart by throwing them into the bowels of the criminal justice system, but it is also harming future generations’ perceptions of racial equity and fairness in the system.
In the SCAODA report on marijuana in Wisconsin, the sixth recommendation for the state of Wisconsin is that “marijuana should not be legalized for personal, recreational use,” because the council references studies show “either no change or an increase in the number of people using marijuana products.” But, this should not be the focus of prison policy.
Instead, Wisconsin should be looking at the larger picture of how keeping marijuana illegal negatively impacts the community, especially the youth. In a study called “Race, Ethnicity, and Youth Perceptions of Criminal Injustice,” researchers Hagan, Shedd and Payne looked into how police contacts with minority populations impact the youth perception of the criminal justice system. They found that Black youth are more vulnerable to police contacts than any other race/ethnicity. Due to these increased contacts, Black youth had a more negative perception of police officers.
If these negative perceptions became the mindset of minority Wisconsinites, this would chip away at the police’s ability to maintain social control and enforce laws effectively.
However, the researchers found that if there was a decrease in police contacts, this could work to diminish minority youth’s negative views of criminal injustice. It is critical, especially in Wisconsin where the Black population only makes up about 6 percent of the state’s population, that the state works closely with this marginalized community to strengthen relationships between their community and the police.
If the community does not trust the local police department due to fear or intimidation, the community will not call the police and may instead take matters into their own hands, or just simply not report crimes.
If Wisconsin worked to increase positive interactions between marginalized communities and police departments, there would be a more open line of communication between the two. This would then pave the way for the police to properly do their job and help communities in times of need, while communities could help the police in keeping them safe.
Another factor that makes the solution offered by SCAODA immoral is the emotional toll prison has on a family and community. While SCAODA claims that decriminalization and legalization “changes have not reduced the [racial] disparities as experts had hoped” in states that underwent reform like California and Colorado; it also states that “overall rates of arrests have decreased,” which means that fewer people were incarcerated in these states than years prior due to the decriminalization and legalization changes. This means that fewer families were broken apart by the criminal justice system sending a parent to jail/prison, fewer families had to struggle through the transition of becoming a single-parent household, fewer families were exposed to intergenerational trauma and fewer families lost access to healthcare.
By decriminalizing and legalizing marijuana, more families were able to stay together, which in turn allows for parents to more closely monitor their adolescent children and keep them out of undue trouble. It would also allow for families to not have to readjust to life with two parents after one came back from incarceration. When a parent comes back from incarceration, no matter how long they have been locked up, families are negatively impacted because not only does the parent have to face reintegration challenges back into their own family unit, but they also must tend to possible traumas such as PTSD, addiction, feelings of social isolation and mental illnesses.
Being a prisoner also leads to fewer job prospects for minorities in a society that already prefers white ex-cons to clean minority workers. This preference for white low-wage workers over minority low-wage workers leads to more minority workers being out of a job, which can lead to poverty, worse education, worse healthcare access and fewer opportunities to escape the lower-class.
If instead these prisoners were treated with kindness and not swept into the broken conglomeration we call a criminal justice system, ex-convicts would be able to skip the terrors faced in prison, the PTSD after leaving their cinder block homes and keep their families stronger and their marriages more intact.
Turning an eye to racial injustice in Wisconsin, we see that these problems are only furthered by keeping marijuana illegal. In 2018, the ACLU found that “Black people [were] 4.2 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession in Wisconsin, despite comparable national marijuana usage rates.” This only exacerbates the problem of racial inequity in Wisconsin and further harms society and families.
By decriminalizing and legalizing marijuana in Wisconsin, lawmakers would take a solid step towards a more racially equitable state.
Wisconsin has to do better with problems surrounding marijuana and the criminal justice system. Not only do policies supporting the illegalization of marijuana fail to account for the many families and communities harmed by them, they also hurt the working relationship between police departments and minority community members in a time when racial tensions are spiked across the country.
Without an evolving legislature, how is the great state of Wisconsin supposed to be a role model in the United States? How will the state embody its state-funded universities Wisconsin Idea of improving the quality of life for everybody? Wisconsin is doing their people a disservice by keeping marijuana illegal and state legislators must now reevaluate the laws they enacted all those years ago to better serve their constituents.
Kalli is a Co-Editor-in-Chief at The Daily Cardinal and a junior studying Journalism, with certificates in Criminal Justice and Middle Eastern Studies. What do you think about marijuana and its illegal occupation in Wisconsin? Do you agree that it should be decriminalized and legalized? Or do you think that would do more harm than help? Send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.