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Could Milwaukee be changing its response to marijuana possession?

While the war on drugs has always been controversial, perhaps the most highly criticized aspect has been the strict enforcement of marijuana laws. Many studies suggest that marijuana is safer in some ways than alcohol and tobacco cigarettes, both of which are legal for adults. And even as this drug has been legalized in many states for medical use, an astonishing number of Americans continue to face arrest and prosecution each year for simple possession.

Last year, a statewide law gave local governments across Wisconsin more control over prohibitions on marijuana and synthetic marijuana. The law was apparently intended to let local governments increase marijuana citations, but Milwaukee seems to be considering a move in the opposite direction. The issue was debated in February at a meeting of the Common Council's Safety Committee.

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, three Aldermen introduced a proposal to drastically reduce fines for possessing small amounts of marijuana. Under the proposal, possession of 25 grams or less would be reduced from a maximum $500 fine to just $5. Smoking the drug in public would continue to carry a fine of $250 to $500.

Those who spoke in support of the measure cited strong evidence that marijuana possession laws disproportionately target African Americans, despite research showing that all ethnic groups use marijuana at highly similar rates.

The associate director of the Wisconsin ACLU noted that "In Milwaukee County, African-American people are 4.9 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession and in the city of Milwaukee, it's about 5.48 times more likely." She also noted that "a criminal record for criminal possession creates a lifetime of collateral damage."

Although the committee ultimately decided to delay any decisions on the proposed ordinance, even an honest public discussion is a victory at this point. Despite any personal feelings on whether or not possession of marijuana should be decriminalized, most people can agree that these racial disparities in marijuana-related arrests are cause for serious concern.

Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Reducing fines for pot possession spurs debate on racial disparity," Crocker Stephenson, Feb. 19, 2015

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