By: Tomás Clasen, Community Engagement Manager

After decades of bipartisan fearmongering and draconian crackdowns on marijuana use, the United States has finally begun to reckon with the damage that criminalizing cannabis has done. To date, 15 states have legalized recreational marijuana use, aiming to undo the broken law and order policies that gave rise to the War on Drugs. 

Wisconsin, one of the few places where even medicinal marijuana remains illegal, now has an opportunity to join the growing legalization movement. Gov. Tony Evers announced a plan to legalize marijuana in his biennial budget proposal. The legislation would stop the vicious and costly cycle of arresting and incarcerating people for simple possession of marijuana and generate upwards of $150 million dollars in tax revenue -- money that would then be reinvested back into underserved areas, particularly communities of color most impacted by the disparate enforcement of marijuana laws and rural communities. It would also reduce or repeal sentences of people with marijuana possession convictions whose convictions would be legal under the new legislation.  

While a great deal of work is left to be done, cannabis legalization in Wisconsin would deal a major blow to the state’s mass incarceration crisis, as well as serve as a concrete step in addressing the pervasive racial inequality that continues to plague our criminal legal system. A 2020 ACLU report looking at national arrest rates for marijuana possession found that Black people are 4.2 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession in Wisconsin, despite comparable usage rates. Wisconsin ranked 14th in the nation for the largest racial disparities in arrests for marijuana possession and was among 17 states where arrests for marijuana possession increased from 2010 to 2018. 

Despite increasing levels of acceptance here and across the country, the state recorded more than 20,000 marijuana-related arrests in 2018 alone, the vast majority of which were for possession. That means thousands of Wisconsin residents, disproportionately Black and brown people, are being pushed into the criminal legal system and thrown into prison, their lives upended over a drug that is widely-used and rarely policed in white, wealthy neighborhoods.

This data confirms what we see each and every day in our communities: Black people being disproportionately harassed, arrested, and imprisoned because of racially-biased policing and enforcement. The War on Drugs was never about preventing drug use or making us safer. It was designed as a mechanism to control Black people, an intentional system of racial oppression that lives on to our present day.

Whatever comes of Evers’ bill, one thing is clear: what we’re doing right now isn’t working. Exceedingly harsh drug enforcement has caused immense suffering in our country’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged communities, fueling a mass incarceration epidemic that relentlessly preys upon Black, brown, and low-income neighborhoods. The people of Wisconsin already recognize that the tough-on-crime approach to marijuana has failed, and nearly 60% of Wisconsinites now support legalization. 

The profits made from the taxation of marijuana would also provide a significant and desperately-needed boost to an economy decimated by the pandemic, one that could offer a lifeline to the thousands of Wisconsinites who have lost their jobs or are otherwise struggling to make ends meet. At a time in which jails and prisons have become COVID-19 hotspots, and when the economy is in freefall, making weed legally available has never made so much sense.

Legalizing marijuana won’t solve systemic racism or end the War on Drugs, but it seems like the most logical place to start.  By passing full legalization, commuting existing criminal sentences for possession, and investing in neighborhoods hardest hit by drug enforcement, Wisconsin can take a meaningful step down the road to repair.