Weed in Wisconsin: How the State Can Reduce Racial Disparities Through Legalization

Compared to other regions in the United States, Wisconsin ranks fifth for the highest racial disparities in marijuana arrests, with Black males impacted most by possession charges. Although cannabis has been decriminalized in Madison, Wisconsin’s capital, and in 15 other Wisconsin jurisdictions, the state has yet to decide on decriminalization or legalization action. While legislators, including Governor Tony Evers, lean toward decriminalizing, and others lean toward keeping the drug illegal, the reality of the matter is that in order to reduce cannabis related racial disparities in Wisconsin, marijuana must be legalized.

Unsplash/ Roberto Valdivia The prohibition of cannabis is rooted in racial bias, with the drug historically being associated with immigrants from Mexico and Black individuals. The name ‘marijuana’ even stems from racial prejudice as in the 1930s, the drug was made more “foreign sounding,” and therefore scarier, by using the Spanish term for cannabis. 

The drug has been criminalized in a manner to control Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) populations and reinforce racial disparities. While the rate of marijuana usage is similar between Black and white individuals, Black people are criminalized, arrested, and fined for possession of the drug at much higher rates. In 2018, Black people in Wisconsin were four times more likely to be arrested and/or imprisoned than white individuals for possession of marijuana.

Ricardo Arce / Unsplash In Wisconsin, those found to be in possession of marijuana, or have the intent to distribute marijuana, are fined up to $1,000 and/or imprisoned for up to 6 months for a first time offense, and up to $10,000 and/or 3.5 years for any offense after the first. Having drug charges on one’s record negatively impacts one’s livelihood, as a person’s ability to be eligible for public housing, employment opportunities, federal grants, student financial aid, child custody, and immigration are all affected. Moreover, incarceration from possession, which disproportionately impacts BIPOC, especially in Wisconsin, often results in health declines, worsening familial relationships, poor child adjustment and increase in their stress levels, unemployment, and poverty.

Notably, there is a continual pattern of the police stopping darker skinned people more than lighter skinned individuals, especially in areas like Milwaukee, the most segregated city in America. Due to police unjustly targeting BIPOC, marijuana arrests for Black people in Milwaukee, who comprise 26 percent of the population, account for 86 percent of marijuana possession offenses, according to 2013-2014 data. On the contrary, white individuals only made up 12 percent of arrests despite making up 37 percent of the population. According to the Wisconsin State Council on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse report, in Wisconsin, Black individuals were 5.98 times more likely than white individuals to be arrested for marijuana possession.  black lives matter protest signs Photo by Obi Onyeador from Unsplash In an effort to reduce these racial disparities, it may be believed that decriminalization of marijuana is the best course of action; however, research has found that while arrest rates and court cases decrease drastically, decriminalization policy changes do not reduce racial disparities. In the state of Colorado, this exact pattern was seen as the arrest rates for Black individuals decreased by 23 percent between 2012 to 2014, yet whites' arrest rate decreased by 54 percent, a declining arrest rate over double that of their Black counterparts. Similarly, in New York, possessing small amounts of marijuana has been decriminalized, which has resulted in a decline in arrests, but not a decline in the racial disparity of who ends up arrested.

Legalizing marijuana will make it so police who target those they suspect of possessing marijuana, who are overwhelmingly BIPOC, will be limited in how they arrest, fine, and criminalize them. Incarceration of BIPOC will also be reduced, as many of those currently in prison are there for the possession of marijuana. The hope would also be that those incarcerated for possession are released and any record of marijuana possession is expunged. By removing marijuana possession from one’s record, many doors that were once closed, such as education, housing access, and child custody will become open again. 

black and white photo of Lady Justice holding the scales of justice Photo by Ezequiel Octaviano from Pixabay

In the state of Wisconsin, where racial disparities are incredibly prevalent, decriminalization of marijuana is not enough. The drug must be legalized in order to lessen the racial disparities currently present in the politically segregated state.