A long-running sometimes fiery Milwaukee Common Council debate over reducing city pot fines to $0-50 for possession of 25 grams or less ended with a all but a whimper Tuesday with one of the most vocal opponents, Ald. Joe Davis voting in favor after a last ditch attempt to send it back to committee failed. The final vote was 10-3 with one member excused.
The ordinance was at the top of the council’s agenda under “unfinished business.” I watched the debate and vote live on Milwaukee City Channel and it is archived and downloadable here.
An analysis of Substitute Ordinance D from council staff states “This ordinance changes the forfeiture for possession of marijuana from $250 – $500 to $0 – $50. The ordinance also establishes a forfeiture of $250 – $500 for a person convicted of smoking marijuana in a public place.” Court costs would still be imposed”.
Ald Nik Kovac, lead sponsor of Substitute Ordinance D began the debate by saying that passage, “Makes us a leader in the county.” He said the council needed to take the lead in deprioritizing cannabis offenses so the city could focus on what is really important. Kovac noted the facts speak for themselves on racial disparity and that “almost every time people are penalized they are black.”
Kovac also thanked the Public Policy Forum for their new report, “Marijuana in Milwaukee: An overview of municipal marijuana policy in Milwaukee and other U.S. cities,” which found that the felony for second and subsequent offenses is a pipeline to jail. He said his “takeaway is that to make real change we need to change the way the second and subsequent are prosecuted by the district attorney.” Kovac said passage of the fine reduction should be considered a first step, noting the Public Policy Forum report says state law and county guidelines need to be changed to remove the possibility of a felony. Kovac said he hopes passage will not be last step but the first in working to get rid of the felony.
He also thanked the Milwaukee Municipal Court which issued a letter in support and urging in the future all citations for second and subsequent offenses be sent to Municipal Court instead of Circuit Court.
After Ald. Davis’ motion to return the ordinance to committee to give the city’s business community an opportunity to weigh in failed on a 10-3 vote, Davis finally folded, saying he was reluctantly voting in favor of the measure. Ald. Terry Witkowski, who had consistently spoken out in opposition throughout the process, voted against the measure, saying he believed it sent the wrong message. Ald. Robert Puente, another consistent opponent was silent.
While Kovac said he hopes passage is just a beginning, local NORML activists will be starting a campaign to put a much broader ordinance before Milwaukee voters by collecting signatures on petitions for a binding local referendum. To qualify for the ballot, NORML needs to collect at least 30,801 valid signatures in 60 days. The effort begins Saturday June 13. On Sunday June 14th NORML is hoping for a good response at the Locust Street Festival, where they collected 1500 signatures last year. For more information on this campaign visit their website, attend one of SE Wisconsin NORML’s weekly meetings, held every Sunday at 4:20pm at Closet Classics in Milwaukee (1000 E North Ave, Milwaukee, WI 53212) or send an email to Eric Marsch at email@example.com.