Bipartisan bill would decriminalize marijuana possession under 14 grams

Legislation would also eliminate felony charges for those caught a second time with less than an ounce

By Richard Kremer
Ted S. Warren/AP Photo

A group of bipartisan lawmakers has introduced a bill to decriminalize possession of marijuana in Wisconsin.

The legislation was introduced by State Rep. Shae Sortwell, R-Two Rivers, Rep. Sylvia Ortiz-Velez, D-Milwaukee, and Rep. Dave Consadine, D-Baraboo. It would create a standard $100 fine for possession of a half ounce or less and eliminate felony charges for anyone caught a second time with less than an ounce. 

Sortwell told WPR it’s a compromise bill, because some lawmakers want harsher penalties while others want to see them weakened. He said some cities like Milwaukee, Madison and Eau Claire have enacted local ordinances reducing or eliminating fines for possessing small amounts of marijuana. 

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“And because of the way things kind of work out right now across our state, you may not be treated the same way if you or somebody you know is caught possessing marijuana in one part of the state versus another part of the state,” Sortwell said.

Under the bill, anyone caught with less than 14 grams of marijuana would not face criminal charges but would face a $100 fine. Under current state law, those individuals face a misdemeanor criminal charge that comes with a fine up to $1,000 and up to six months of jail time. 

The bill would also make a big change with regard to those caught a second time with marijuana. Under current law, a second offense is treated as a Class I felony that could come with a fine up to $10,000 and up to three-and-a-half years in jail. The legislation would eliminate the felony provisions for those caught a second time with 28 grams of marijuana or less. 

When she was a Milwaukee County Board Supervisor, Ortiz-Velez was a lead sponsor of the local resolution that decreased possession fines to $1 there. She said some local government officials may not be happy with a state proposal raising it again, “but I’m also very realistic of the political environment that we live in and how far behind our state already is when it comes to this issue.”

“We also know that once a person gets a misdemeanor, it’s unlikely they’re gonna just stop using their medicine, and likely they will become a felon as well,” Ortiz-Velez said. 

Jay Selthofner of the Wisconsin Cannabis Network advocacy group, told WPR decriminalization is “one of the four pillars” of moving toward full marijuana legalization in Wisconsin. Still, he said he has problems with the bill, namely the potential to increase fines in some parts of the state.

“The second problem is that 14 grams is not really enough,” Selthofner said. “People that travel and buy marijuana generally buy more than 14 grams at a time.”

Selthofner said there have been competing marijuana bills from Republicans and Democrats in past legislative sessions. He said he’s hoping to see more bipartisan legislation in the future and would welcome the formation of a “Wisconsin cannabis caucus.” 

The proposal comes as Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has said that Republicans will unveil a proposal to legalize medical marijuana in Wisconsin with a potential vote next year. In an interview with the Associated Press, Vos said the medical marijuana bill will be limited and modeled after one enacted in Minnesota, before that state moved to full legalization.