Category Archives: History

Should Wisconsin Revise Its Marijuana Laws?

Wisconsin State Capitol )Source: State of Wisconsin)

40 years ago today, on June 9, 1975, the State of Wisconsin began holding a series of public hearings on Wisconsin marijuana laws. The hearings were conducted by the State Controlled Substance Board’s “Special Committee on Marijuana Laws,” and produced a “Final Report to the Controlled Substances Board,” issued in October 1975, and titled, “Should Wisconsin Revise Its Marijuana Laws?

The introduction of the report gives this background on the origin of the idea:

At its February 6, 1975 meeting, the Wisconsin Council on Drug Abuse decided that a statewide series of public hearings should be held on the issue of whether Wisconsin should revise its marijuana laws. However since the council meets quarterly, it requested the Wisconsin Controlled Substances Board, which meets monthly, to actually conduct the hearings. At the March 26, 1975 meeting, the board appointed a Special Committee on Wisconsin’s Marijuana Laws to plan and conduct the hearings. Accordingly, the Committee adopted the following schedule of hearings:

The Special Committee on Marijuana Laws set a schedule of hearing dates beginning June 9, 1975 at Winnebago and concluding in Milwaukee on September 11, 1975.

The 8 public hearing dates/sites:

 June 9th & 10: Winnebago
June 10th & 11th: Green Bay
July: 8th & 9th: Wausau
July 9th & 10th: La Crosse
August 11th: Superior
August 12th & 13th: Eau Claire
Sept. 10th: Madison
Sept. 11th: Milwaukee

The members of the Special Committee on Marijuana Laws represented a cross section of state officials and treatment professionals.

List of committee members who conducted the 1975 public hearings on Wisconsin marijuana laws. (Source: Wisconsin Historical Society.)
Survey questionnaire for Wisconsin 1975 pot hearings. (Source: WI Historical Society)

Most speakers at the hearings felt strongly on the issue, pro or con. The final report findings included the following:

Out of 1,128 who responded to a questionnaire, 1,083, or 94 percent, favored lightening or eliminating present penalties against possession of marijuana for personal use.

Of the 28 people who said the present law is not strict enough, 20 favored both longer jail terms and greater fines.

Of those who said present laws are too harsh, 59 percent favored legalizing marijuana. Legalizing would mean regulating and taxing the sale and use as the state does alcohol and tobacco.

About 40 percent supported “decriminalization” of personal use. That is, possession of small amounts would be treated as a civil forfeiture, like a traffic ticket.

Original grid of survey results from the final report of the Wisconsin Special Committee on Marijuana Laws released in Oct. 1975. (Source: Wisconsin Historical Society.)
Explanation of survey results from original report. (Source: Wisconsin Historical Society.

By the time the hearing reached Madison on September 10, 1975, support was building with many state leaders strongly in favor:

Decriminalization supporters included:

Gov. Patrick Lucey and his Council on Drug Abuse
Attorney General Bronson La Follette
Assistant Atty. Gen. John William Calhoun
Wisconsin Controlled Substances Board
U. S. Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI), (who sponsored federal decriminalization legislation with 4 other senators)
State Rep. David C. Clarenbach (D-Madison)
Milwaukee County District Attorney Michael McCann
Madison Police Chief David Couper
UW Sociology Prof. Gerald Marwell, who did research for the 1972 National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse (Shafer Commission).
UW Dean of Students Paul Ginsberg
Judie LaForme of the UW Drug Information Center
ACLU leader William Gorham Rice

Sept. 7, 1975 Wisconsin State Journal article on Special Committee on Marijuana Laws hearings coming up in Madison and Milwaukee that week. (Source: Wisconsin State Journal/

The reports conclusions were discussed in a Nov. 14, 1975 Capital Times story noting strong support for passage of a state decriminalization law.

The Governor’s Council on Drug Abuse endorsed the decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana Thursday, with both Attorney General Bronson La Follette and Gov. Patrick Lucey’s designee in support.

The council’s 7-1 vote followed a similar move Oct. 20 when the Controlled Substances Board backed removing criminal penalties on a 4-2 vote.

Wisconsin lawmakers ignored the findings of the Special Committee on Marijuana Laws and never passed a statewide decriminalization law to date. However lawmakers eventually did enact a law allowing counties and municipalities to adopt local decriminalization ordinances for amounts of 25 grams of cannabis or less.

This has created a patchwork of different enforcement across the state. Some areas have no local municipal ordinance but have a county statute. Other places have local ordinances, but rarely use them. Some places have stipulated smaller amounts than 25 grams. In many locales, criminal charges are often filed anyways for small amounts depending on circumstances.

In 2015, with a felony still state law for any amount of cannabis as a second or subsequent offense, local efforts are underway in Dane County, Milwaukee and other locales to attempt to address inequalities in how small amounts of cannabis are dealt with. With the ACLU reporting huge racial disparities in how pot charges are prosecuted, particularly in Wisconsin, local governments are looking at fine reductions and other strategies. A state law passed in 2014 allows subsequent offenses to be dealt with as civil infractions in certain cases.

Among the cannabis law reform legislation introduced in the 2015 session, SB 167/AB 246, introduced by Rep. Mandela Barnes (D-Milwaukee), would remove the felony for cases under 25 grams and allow for subsequent offenses.

A bill by Rep. Melissa Sargent, AB224, would go much farther, creating a medical cannabis registry, legalizing the possession, production and sale of small amounts of cannabis to adults as states like Colorado and Washington have done.

Whether these bills will receive public hearings remains up to the Republican majorities that control both houses of the legislature. But with pot now legal in four states and Washington D.C., support for reform is at record levels even in Wisconsin. Perhaps a good beginning might be to convene a modern-day Special Committee on Marijuana Laws and listen to what Wisconsinites have to say.



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