Alders representing Madison’s downtown and the UW-Madison campus area are proposing changes that would further decriminalize the use and possession of cannabis in Madison.
Together, the three ordinances would allow individuals 18 years or older to consume or possess up to 28 grams of cannabis or cannabis derivatives on private or public property, with permission of the owner, and allow for the possession of paraphernalia to use cannabis. One of the ordinances would prohibit the smoking of marijuana in any place that is already designated as smoke free.
Ald. Mike Verveer, District 4, said he has been considering reforming Madison’s cannabis laws for years but was influenced by recent events, including the police killing of George Floyd and a national reckoning over racism. He also pointed to the connection between drug laws and racial disparities in law enforcement outcomes.
“I’ve long supported a more progressive and rational cannabis policy in Madison, and I long have felt that beyond Madison, Wisconsin should have moved long ago to legalize regulated adult use for both medical and recreational marijuana,” Verveer said.
In addition to Verveer and Ald. Max Prestigiacomo, District 8, 10 additional alders have signed on as sponsors of the legislation as of Wednesday afternoon. The proposals were introduced at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
“Both my own personal interest in the decriminalization of not just cannabis but all fines and fees that criminalize a public health issue pushed me to sponsor this,” Prestigiacomo said in an email. “Not to mention, these fines are disproportionately used against marginalized people of color foremost.”
The first proposal repeals the current city ordinance regulating the use and possession of cannabis, which states that no one can possess marijuana or cannabis in a public place unless it was obtained from a valid prescription or order of a practitioner.
Under the new ordinance, individuals 18 years or older may consume or possess up to 28 grams of cannabis or cannabis derivatives on private or public property with permission of the owner, landlord or tenant. Exceptions are included for places where smoking is already prohibited. It prohibits consumption in a motor vehicle in operation and mirrors state statutes in allowing possession and consumption by individuals with a prescription for cannabis of derivatives.
Two additional ordinance proposals would create an exception to current city regulations to allow for the possession of paraphernalia to use cannabis and incorporate cannabis and cannabis derivatives into existing city rules on smoking and smoke-free areas.
The Public Safety Review Committee will review the proposals at its meeting Oct. 14 at 5 p.m.
In 1977, Madison approved one of the earliest municipal decriminalization ordinances, which allowed the possession of up to 112 grams of marijuana or 28 grams of cannabis in a private area, though it could not be possessed in a public area.
“This expands that and this is long overdue because, just like Wisconsin has fallen behind the times in terms of rational cannabis policy, Madison has as well,” Verveer said.
Under current ordinances, those breaking the law could be subjected to up to a $100 fine. The possession of drug paraphernalia is also banned, and violators are currently subjected to a fine of not more than $500.
Prestigiacomo said decriminalized cannabis in Madison allows affluent, white people to consume without fear while the opposite is true for marginalized communities. Further, penalties for breaking the current law harms these communities.
“The structure of fines and fees in this city effectively criminalizes poverty and often criminalizes homelessness,” Prestigiacomo said. “Compounding and successive fees coupled with restricting where consumption is allowed are direct causes of this injustice.”
Acting Police Chief Vic Wahl expressed concern with the proposals, saying in an email that he would prefer if city ordinances remained consistent with the state law with respect to marijuana.
“I’m concerned that the city is putting forth a policy allowing 18 year-olds to smoke marijuana, but not drink alcohol,” Wahl said in an email. “I also am concerned that these ordinances don’t do enough to keep marijuana out of the school environment.”
He would like to raise the bail deposit for possession on school property and buses, prohibit consumption on park property, raise the permitted age to 21 and prohibit any consumption in a motor vehicle.
In Wisconsin, possession of any amount of marijuana is a misdemeanor and punishable by up to six months in prison and a $1,000 fine. Subsequent violations could land an offender a felony, punishable by up to 3.5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Though it is currently a violation of state statute and federal law to possess or consume cannabis in the city, the Madison Police Department, at the direction of the Dane County District Attorney’s Office, would not refer charges for cases that only involve possession of less than 28 grams, according to the proposed ordinance.
According to the ordinance’s fiscal note, the new rules would likely result in fewer cannabis-related citations. From Jan. 1, 2019, through Aug. 1 of this year, 468 cannabis citations were issued, representing an estimated $54,000. Of that, about $14,000 has been paid.
Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, included a measure in the 2019 budget to legalize the use of cannabis for medical purposes, decriminalize for any use possession of up to 25 grams, and establish an expungement procedure for convictions involving less than 25 grams. This ultimately was not passed.
Former MPD Chief Mike Koval spoke publicly in support of the state legalizing, regulating and taxing the drug. In nonbinding referendums, Dane County has consistently approved of the state legalizing marijuana.