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Sunday, February 05, 2023

Is it decriminalized? Clearing up the confusion about marijuana policy in Madison

On campus and off campus use of marijuana lead to differing consequences.

Over 14,000 people are arrested for marijuana possession every year in Wisconsin, according to 2019 data from the Milwaukee County District Attorney's office. 

Dane County historically has lower marijuana conviction rates, convicting people about seven times less than the average Wisconsin county. Madison has moved towards decriminalization. 

Marijuana violations in Madison may have different consequences on versus off campus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In most cases, simple possession of marijuana will have no or minimal consequences, unless accompanied by other offenses. However, selling marijuana can have more serious consequences. 

Here’s a look at ther state, city and university policies that guide marijuana enforcement and norms in Madison. 

The City of Madison

Hunter Lisko, the public information officer for the Madison Police Department, said enforcement of marijuana-related incidents is “circumstance dependent.” Madison is often said to have decriminalized marijuana but Lisko says this isn’t the best terminology. 

“The word decriminalized I think can be misleading,” Lisko said. “While it might not be legal, we're not necessarily interfering or taking enforcement action if it's just marijuana possession — if there's not another coinciding thing that we're looking into.”

Possession of marijuana is still illegal in Madison. However, the Dane County District Attorney’s Office won’t prosecute an adult for simple possession of fewer than 28 grams unless it violates certain circumstances. 

The City of Madison Police Department Standard Operating Procedure prohibits possessing marijuana within 20 feet of a school, on a school bus, in an operating vehicle or on “property open to the public” without permission. 

Lisko said most marijuana-related incidents resulting in enforcement actions are combined with other crimes. Behavior that impacts public safety or creates significant disturbance is more likely to be addressed.  

“Then it becomes disorderly conduct or trespassing to a business,” Lisko said. 

The consequences for dealing marijuana in Madison are different than personal use. If an officer finds evidence of “intent to deliver,” enforcement can be expected. 

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“If I think okay, this person has a lot of marijuana and they have a gun and a significant amount of cash, and they have a scale and several bags of marijuana broken out into sellable amounts — that is indicative of intent to deliver,” Lisko said. “That would be something that would result in a state criminal charge. The easiest way for people to avoid that is to not be involved with the sale of marijuana or to abide by possessing less than 28 grams of marijuana at any time.”


The University of Wisconsin-Madison Police Department (UWPD) has its own policies and is not bound by city ordinances. UWPD follows the UW Administrative Code and state statutes. 

Marijuana incidents that UWPD encounters range from non-criminal citations — essentially a ticket — to felony offenses for dealing. 

Assistant Chief Brent Plisch of UWPD said most on-campus marijuana interventions involve other violations such as alcohol, theft or vandalism. Officers tend to be more likely to take action on these additional factors rather than issuing a ticket for marijuana.  

On top of a police penalty, students may face additional consequences from the university. The UW Administrative Code states that marijuana is handled in the same way as alcohol violations. First-time offenders receive a warning and online cannabis education. A second offense results in a short probation period and referral to Cannabis Screening and Intervention for College Students (CASICS), which involves personal assessments and one-on-one sessions with an abuse counselor. 

“In the sessions, students will have a structured opportunity in a non-judgmental setting to assess their individual risk and identify potential changes for the future,” the administrative code says. 

Suspension is a risk if a student is dealing marijuana. 

Plisch said when officers respond to a marijuana-related incident, a lot of times it is because of a complaint from the community. 

“Let's say in a residence hall somebody may call in because they have asthma or they're allergic to smoke and their neighbors are constantly smoking,” Plisch said.

Plisch said officers have a lot of flexibility in how they handle marijuana incidents, but they are trained to take “behavior-based” actions. 

“We take action based on behaviors and things that are hurtful to other people in the community,” Plisch said. 

There have been 32 marijuana-related cases this year, according to Plisch. Two of the cases resulted in criminal charges, both because of the involvement of harder drugs.

Legal consequences in Wisconsin

Jail time is a possibility for marijuana crimes, even for simple possession, Teuta Jonuzi, a defense attorney at Tracey Wood & Associates said. 

Both possession and dealing of marijuana can result in fines of up to $1,000 and six months of jail time for the first offense. The second offense can result in up to $10,000 in fines and three and a half years of jail time, according to Jonuzi. 

Because of Madison’s looser marijuana policies, Jonuzi doesn’t have clients from Madison for simple possession. However, she has seen cases of possession in areas surrounding Madison. 

Marijuana Referendums 

Two marijuana referendums were on the Dane County midterm election ballot on Tuesday.

The first question asked voters if marijuana should be legalized, taxed and regulated. Voters were also asked if Wisconsin should expunge previous convictions for marijuana possession. Dane County residents overwhelmingly voted in favor of legalization and expungement. 

The referendums are non-binding and meant to provide insight into public opinion.  

A 2022 poll found that 69% of Wisconsin voters favor legalization. 

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