By Crocker Stephenson

The Milwaukee Common Council voted 10-3 Tuesday to reduce the maximum fine for possessing a small amount of marijuana from $500 to $50.

Mayor Tom Barrett has seven working days to sign the legislation.

"I'm certainly considering it," he said. "I'm going to be talking to the police chief and to the district attorney. I want to get their input."

Also Tuesday, the council approved a measure to accelerate the city's ability to foreclose on vacant tax-delinquent properties.

And Common Council President Michael Murphy announced that a special election will be held Aug. 18 for the 11th Aldermanic District seat, which was left vacant May 22 when Ald. Joe Dudzik was killed in a motorcycle crash.

The decision to reduce the fine for possessing up to 25 grams of marijuana — about enough to fill a sandwich bag — was praised by proponents of statewide decriminalization laws.

American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin Executive Director Chris Ahmuty said the matter was a social justice issue.

"Whites and African-Americans use marijuana at about the same rates," he said.

"What the ACLU has found, across the country and here in Wisconsin, enforcement leads to racial disparity and the excessive fines we have here in Milwaukee result in harm."

The Public Policy Forum recently reported that few people in Milwaukee are ever jailed for failing to pay the municipal citation. Second and subsequent violations, however, are criminal offenses, which are reviewed by the district attorney.

While African-Americans make up 26% of Milwaukee County's population, they account for 86% of those convicted of second or subsequent violations.

Decriminalization of second or subsequent violations would require a change of state criminal laws.

"This is the first step in making it legal," said Ald. Nik Kovac, who authored the ordinance change.

"If you're not bothering your neighbor, and you are not a threat to your own safety or someone else's, why should we have any tax-funded resources involved in that personal decision you just made," he said.

"I hope the state will follow our lead."

Rep. Melissa Sargent (D-Madison) said that is not likely to happen as long as Republicans control the Legislature.

"Often it takes a good piece of legislation years to go forward," said Sargent, who has proposed a sweeping bill that would legalize adult possession of marijuana, permit its sale, provide for permits to grow marijuana and allow for its medical use.

"The prohibition of marijuana is not working," she said.

Rep. Mandela Barnes (D-Milwaukee) has introduced a more limited bill, one that would decriminalize possession of up to 25 grams.

"I will be pushing for a public hearing," he said.

A supermajority of 10 council members would be needed to override a mayoral veto. If the mayor decides not to sign the measure, it will become law.

Aldermen Bob Donovan, Robert Puente and Terry Witkowski voted against the measure.

While Donovan and Puente did not speak against the measure other than to vote against it, Witkowski cited a letter signed by Milwaukee's three municipal court judges asking council members to keep the maximum fine at $500 but lower the minimum fine to nothing.

The minimum fine would give them broader discretion in imposing a forfeiture. The maximum fine would reflect the seriousness of breaking the law.

"Marijuana remains an illegal substance," says the letter, signed by Phillip Chavez, Valarie Hill and Derek Mosley.

"By setting a maximum that is lower than the range for underage possession of alcohol (a legal substance) as well as other ordinances that are arguably less serious than possession of an illegal substance, we believe would send the wrong message to our community," they wrote.

"We've been sending this message for decades," Kovac said. "It's not getting through."


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