Justice for pot smokers in America has become ridiculously uneven. They can light up legally in many states, while a second arrest for mere possession in Wisconsin remains a potential felony.

Gretchen Schuldt got to wondering who is being snared here by this increasingly outdated law, and what she found so far is that it's men of color in poor neighborhoods. She is executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative, formed a year and a half ago to improve the quality of justice and educate people on legal issues.

"The WJI's position is that second offense felony shouldn't exist," she said.

I agree with her and so does Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm. With respect to marijuana, the felony hammer for second and subsequent possession "has outlived its usefulness," he said.

The numbers are down, yet the felony option is still being used, usually in cases that involve other aggravating factors. Maybe the person holding the pot also has a gun, or is in a stolen car, or has a nasty prior record, or is suspected of a more serious crime.

"I certainly don't take the position that I can willy-nilly ignore legislative mandates. But what I clearly can do is use discretion and some common sense on a lot of these cases and try to wisely use the scarce resources we have in the criminal justice system," Chisholm said.

These days, he said, drug offenders are screened and many are offered chances to avoid prosecution and conviction by getting the help they need and staying out of trouble.

Schuldt, a former colleague of mine at the Journal Sentinel, set out a year ago to find cases of felony weed possession in Milwaukee County. She and former state legislator Barb Notestein are spending many hours at the Safety Building reviewing case files with help from the clerk of courts criminal division.

"They've been great. Put that in there. They have been terrific in helping us pull these. They actually do the pulling when we say, 'Hey, can we have these 100 cases,' " Schuldt said.

She is focusing on the ones where the defendant was charged only with felony marijuana possession and no other offenses. So far, Schuldt has sifted out more than 125 such cases, starting in 2016 and then looking at a few years before that. The maximum penalty is three and a half years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

She has posted details from the 14 most recent cases on The Pot Page section of Wisconsin Justice Initiative's website, with many more to come. Most of them stem from traffic stops for such things as not wearing a seat belt, lacking a proper license plate or having dark tinted windows.

All 12 Milwaukee stops were on the north side and involved African-American men. Two others in Greendale and Cudahy were Hispanic men. All of these cases involved defendants with previous felony records, Schuldt said. Eleven of them were convicted of these new possession felonies and received some jail time or probation and community service. Three cases were dismissed.

"Not only is it morally repugnant in the way it's enforced inequitably. But you say, wow. that's a lot of tax revenue we're giving up by criminalizing marijuana," Schuldt said.

Wisconsin lawmakers in power have shown no signs of wanting to join the 29 states that have legalized marijuana for medical use and the eight that voted for recreational use. It will happen eventually, even if we're the last to do it.

Meanwhile, police and prosecutors in Wisconsin continue to chase after weed smokers, often handling these arrests with municipal citations, but sometimes treating them as misdemeanor or felony crimes.

"And there is the ancillary damage done to people convicted of this crime — the felony record that guts life chances for decent employment and some government benefits, the potential of spending days in jail after arrest that can result in lost jobs and disrupted families, the loss of the right to vote while under the court/Department of Corrections supervision, and the permanent loss of the right to have firearms," Schuldt wrote in an opinion piece that appeared this month on Urban Milwaukee.

Meanwhile, in many other states, it's smoke 'em if you got 'em.



News Moderator: Ron Strider 420 MAGAZINE ®
Full Article: Stingl: As more states legalize weed, second offense for possession is still a felony in Wisconsin
Author: Jim Stingl
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