Another bill to reform marijuana laws is being pushed in the state Legislature, but this time from an unlikely source: a Republican.
“For me this bill has been a little bit of journey,” Rep. Adam Jarchow said Tuesday.
The Balsam Lake lawmaker, who described his rural district as “pretty conservative,” held a press conference on Tuesday to spotlight his bill, which would reduce the maximum penalty for possessing 10 grams or less of marijuana to a municipal violation, with a forfeiture of $100.
“What we propose here today is what I think is a common-sense solution to a difficult issue,” he said. “And that is to not legalize but to decriminalize.”
Also supporting the bill were Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, and Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee.
Absent were any other Republican lawmakers, although Jarchow noted that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has shown interest in exploring a medical marijuana bill, which Jarchow said “gives me some hope.”
Jarchow said the bill would not ease sanctions on larger amounts of marijuana.
“We’re not talking about any amount that would be sufficient to be a dealer,” he said. “We’re simply talking about a small amount that you could get a joint or two out of.”
The measure, he said, would reduce the fiscal and social costs to the criminal justice system and to countless people who have lost their ability to vote, own a gun, get students loans, obtain some professional licenses or land a job with decent pay.
Jarchow said he started thinking about the issue on the campaign trail last summer, when “I would hear from voters pretty regularly that they thought we needed to change course on marijuana policy.”
During a subsequent Facebook town hall meeting, he posed the question to constituents, with 90 percent of those weighing in wanting a change.
A survey of his district this spring yielded similar results, he said, with 75 to 80 percent of more than 700 respondents wanting to see a change in marijuana policies.
“I think the reason is because the costs to society are so high with our current course,” he said.
The bill is similar to a proposal the Office of the State Public Defender has requested for the past several budget cycles.
"It’s meant to be a cost-saving measure,” said Adam Plotkin from the Public Defender’s Office. “By decriminalizing you no longer provide representation. You also achieve savings in prosecutors, law enforcement and corrections.”
He also said that plunging low-level offenders into the criminal justice system has been shown to increase the likelihood that they will offend again. So keeping them out of the system, he said, not only saves money, but furthers public safety.
Several Wisconsin municipalities have already passed city ordinances that make marijuana possession an ordinance violation rather than a criminal offense, including Madison, Milwaukee and Appleton. But elsewhere, police and prosecutors have the discretion to charge possession as a misdemeanor or a felony, leaving the state with wildly disparate consequences.
“I represented a number of young men, primarily young men of color, on misdemeanor and felony charges of possessing marijuana,” said Goyke, a former attorney with the State Public Defender’s Office in Milwaukee County. “I can personally attest to the fact that charges are brought on low amounts of marijuana in this state. It’s not just a Milwaukee practice, it’s a statewide practice. And it should end.”
Risser pointed out that the bill would reduce the penalty for possession to about that of running a red light.
“And yet that’s life-threatening,” he said. “Smoking or having possession of small amounts of marijuana are not life-threatening.”
Jarchow said that while he’s hopeful for reform of the state’s marijuana laws in the long run, he’s not betting that he’ll garner the support from his GOP colleagues to get it passed in the near future.
“I’m not naïve to think that we are going to probably pass this and get it signed into law,” he said. “This to me is a first step. And what I’m hoping we achieve today is a little bit of public awareness of a bipartisan solution to a difficult problem, as well as maybe we could get a public hearing and we could flesh out some of these issues we’ve been talking about, some of these costs. That would help lead the way to further reforms.”