Milwaukee County voters would be asked on the Nov. 6 ballot if the state should legalize marijuana use by adults, regulate its commercial distribution and collect a tax on sales, under a proposal recommended Thursday by the County Board’s judiciary committee.
Full legalization or decriminalization of marijuana possession is gaining momentum in states across the U.S., said county Supervisor John Weishan Jr. of West Allis.
“I think the citizens of Milwaukee County should have a chance to weigh in on it,” said Weishan, sponsor of a resolution proposing the advisory referendum. The committee unanimously recommended approval of the resolution.
The referendum question would be included on municipal ballots in the Nov. 6 fall general election if the proposal is approved by the full County Board at its May 24 meeting. Cost of adding the referendum to ballots is estimated at $15,000.
State lawmakers have not acted on legislative proposals to remove criminal penalties for personal marijuana use despite polls showing public support for the change, according to Weishan.
A Marquette University Law School poll in 2016 found that 59% of registered Wisconsin voters agreed that marijuana “should be fully legalized and regulated like alcohol.” Only 39% disagreed.
“Legalizing and taxing marijuana could significantly increase state and local revenue,” the resolution said.
“In these tight budget times, that is appropriate,” Weishan said Thursday. Several citizens speaking at Thursday’s committee meeting said the county and state need new revenue sources to help pay for schools, roads, housing and other social needs.
In 2017, Colorado collected $247 million in taxes and fees from sales of recreational and medical marijuana and pot-based edibles, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue and several citizens speaking Thursday.
Colorado last year reported $1.09 billion worth of sales of marijuana for adult use and an additional $416 million worth of sales from medical marijuana, news reports said.
Other speakers Thursday said the step of legalizing marijuana in Colorado created 16,000 jobs in 2014 and 2015. Retail sales began there in January 2014.
Studies found that the pot industry nationwide could employ as many as 300,000 workers by 2020.
“The time law enforcement spends enforcing existing marijuana laws and ordinances negatively impacts the time available to solve more serious crimes and apprehend more dangerous criminals,” according to Weishan’s resolution.
In Wisconsin, the crime of second possession of marijuana can be treated as a felony and result in a prison sentence.
“Felony second offense marijuana charges are disproportionately issued against African-American males in Milwaukee County,” Weishan’s resolution said.
Gretchen Schuldt, a county resident, provided arrest figures to show this racial disparity.
In Milwaukee County, 95 people were arrested for only second possession of marijuana in 2015 and 2016, and 76 of those arrests came in the city of Milwaukee north of I-94, according to Schuldt.
Of those arrested, 82 of the 95 were black and four were Hispanic while nine were white, she said. The pattern of arrests for second possession show a 9 to 1 disparity between black and white county residents, Schuldt said.
Eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized possession of small amounts of marijuana for adult recreational use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In Weishan’s resolution, an adult is defined as someone 21 years of age and older.
An additional 14 states have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Other citizens speaking Thursday said marijuana provided pain control and could be used to control seizures and other medical purposes.
“This issue should have been addressed years ago” in Wisconsin, said Supervisor Steven Shea, a member of the committee.
“Imprisoning people for possession of small amounts of marijuana, I believe is a scandal,” Shea said.