Milwaukee Alders Reopen Pot Fine Debate June 2, NORML activists look to local referendum

"Milwaukee 05741u". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Milwaukee_05741u.jpg#/media/File:Milwaukee_05741u.jpg
Milwaukee Wisconsin common council and local activists seek pot law changes. (Source: “Milwaukee 05741u”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org)/wiki/File:Milwaukee_05741u.jpg#/media/File:Milwaukee_05741u.jpg)

Milwaukee alders will again be debating reducing city pot fines at their June 2 meeting. Meanwhile, local activists are looking at a bigger plan.

Action on lowering fines had been postponed after fiery debate at the common council’s Tuesday May 12 meeting. Ald. Nik Kovac, along with Alders Ashanti Hamilton, Robert Bauman, Russell Stamper and Willie Wade had sponsored a substitute ordinance reducing fines from $500 to $50 after failed attempt to lower the fine to $1-5. In April, The Dane County Board voted to reduce county pot fines to $1.

“Over a dozen people actually did jail time just because of this ticket and failures to pay. We’re not collecting most of this money anyways but we are putting people in jail for less than 25 grams of marijuana.” — Ald. Nik Kovac

Under Kovac’s proposal, public use would result in fine structure staying the same at the current amount of $250-500 , in line with Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn’s concerns about parity with citations for alcohol use in public. Kovac had originally sponsored the proposal after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) issued a report spotlighting the racial disparities in marijuana law enforcement.

Ald. Willie Wade (Milwaukee City Channel)
Ald. Willie Wade (Milwaukee City Channel)

During the debate May 12, 7th district Alder Willie Wade delivered a blistering indictment or systemic racism, noting the penalty reduction was needed to address racial profiling, “The data and research and information points to a disproportionate amount of discrimination, prejudice and racism on the way the law is enforced.” Speaking after Wade, Ald. Ashanti Hamilton said, “I’m going to wait until Ald. Wade’s microphone stops smoking.”

Ald. Ashanti Hamilton (Milwaukee City Channel)
Ald. Ashanti Hamilton (Milwaukee City Channel)

Opponents of the change used heavy helpings of fearmongering and hyperbole in trying to make the case that passing a minor fine reduction only good for one use and less than 25 grams would all but lead to the the collapse of civil society in Milwaukee.

The four alders who spoke at length in opposition were Alders Joe Davis, Robert Donovan, Terry Witkowski and Robert Puente. Each offered a different style of reefer madness thinking as they painted a bleak future for Milwaukee or predicted dire effects if pot fines were reduced.

Ald.  Robert Puente, all comedic timing and no punchline, said that the reduced fines would lead to people smoking and selling pot instead of job creation. (see video).

Ald. Robert Donovan, an announced candidate for Milwaukee mayor in the 2016 election delivered a rambling speech on why he felt voting no was the way to go. (see video).

Ald. Robert Bauman
Ald. Robert Bauman rebutted opponents claims of dire outcomes if fines were reduced. (Milwaukee City Channel)

Ald. Robert Bauman expertly rebutted that contention by pointing out the reality of what a minor change the proposal represented legally and noting passage would save money and “reduce the number of commitments” to jail.

The debate stretched more than an hour before Ald. Joe Dudzik’s motion to send it back to committee failed. Ald. Puente then moved to hold the matter until the Council’s June 2 meeting. Four alders voted to support the hold with only three needed to pass. The four were Alders Davis, Donovan, Witkowski and Dudzik.

When alders resume debate June 2, only three of the 4 who voted to delay will be present. In a tragic May 21 accident, Dudzik was fatally injured after crashing his Harley Davidson motorcycle into traffic barricades just a few blocks from his home. Speed and alcohol were factors and Dudzik registered a BAC of .137.

While you can expect to hear opponents reprise similar themes on June 2, the May 12 debate shows the majority of council members are prepared to vote in favor of the ordinance reducing fines to $50 when the time comes. More delays will not change that.

Milwaukee residents should contact their alders and request adoption of the ordinance. For those wishing to attend, he Common Council Common will meet Tuesday, June 2, 2015 in the Council Chambers, 3rd Floor, City Hall at 9:00 am. Milwaukee City Channel will carry the meeting live and video can be viewed later as well.

While Milwaukee alders debate a significant, but in the big picture, relatively minor reform of local pot laws, activists with the Southeastern Wisconsin chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) have a much broader vision. They will soon commence a campaign to gather enough signatures to place a binding referendum before Milwaukee voters.

Eric Marsch, Communications Director for SE WI NORML, says the signature campaign will kick off Sunday June 14th at the Locust Street Festival, where the group collected 1500 signatures in a day last year.

Marsch described the proposal, “We’re using a modified version of Madison Ordinance 23.20, allowing private possession of up to 8 ounces in residences and lowering the fine to $5 for up to 8 ounces outside of the home. Cannabis possession will be allowed in public with a valid doctor’s order.”

“We’re going to be collecting signatures at Summerfest, Chill on the Hill, Jazz in the Park, and other local festivals as well as getting businesses to circulate petitions,” Marsch says.

SE WI NORML is also looking for volunteers to collect signatures and businesses to circulate petitions. Interested parties can contact SE WI NORML by attending weekly meetings, held every Sunday at 4:20pm at Closet Classics in Milwaukee (1000 E North Ave, Milwaukee, WI 53212) or sending an email to Marsch at eric@sewisconsinnorml.org.

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