Ever come across a mildly interesting thing in Milwaukee and wonder, “What’s the deal with that mildly interesting thing?” What’s The Deal With explores these local curiosities, and aims to find the stories behind them.

Today is April 20, a day commonly associated with Crispin Glover’s birthday, Carmen Electra’s birthday, and, oh yeah, marijuana. Why the association with 420 and the forever-debated demon weed? Despite the claims of generations of heavy-lidded high school students, the number has nothing to do with the police code for pot, or the number of chemical compounds found in THC. Turns out, two dudes just kind of made it up in the ’70s. Go figure.

But what’s the deal with marijuana laws in Milwaukee? A brief primer:

For decades, all marijuana possession charges in the City of Milwaukee were treated as violations of state law. Get busted with some pot? You’d be prosecuted by the Milwaukee County District Attorney. But in 1997, a new ordinance made some significant changes. Now, instead of violating a state law, first-time offenders possessing 25 grams of pot or less were simply charged with violating a city ordinance. So long, prosecution by the Milwaukee County D.A.; hello, paying a municipal ticket in municipal court.

Today, second and subsequent offenses involving 25 grams or less are still technically a D.A. and state matter, though a 2014 state law gave municipalities the ability to handle these cases themselves—if the district attorney’s office decides not to prosecute.

In 2015, the Milwaukee Common Council further chipped away at the city’s marijuana laws. Previously, the fine for possessing 25 grams or less had been anywhere between $250 and $500 (the average fine, according to the Milwaukee Municipal Court, was $266). Now, in an ordinance that was approved 10-3, the fine was lowered to anywhere between $0 and $50. (Various fees and surcharges, however, make a $50 fine closer to $124.)

“It’s still illegal and this just reduces the fine,” Ald. Nik Kovac said at the time. “But yes, the intent of this legislation was to say that personal use in a private space in my opinion is not something we should be worried about. We already have our police and district attorney saying this is not an enforcement priority nor prosecutorial priority.

“This is not a free for all,” Kovac continued. “We do not want the public use of marijuana just like we don’t want public drinking of alcohol at a bus stop or on the sidewalk.”

The ACLU of Wisconsin applauded the decision, saying: “Whites and African-Americans use marijuana at about the same rate. But we’ve found, the ACLU has found, across the country and here in Wisconsin and Milwaukee enforcement leads to racial disparity and the excessive fines that we have here in Milwaukee result in harm.”

So, is marijuana legal in Milwaukee? Not by a long a shot. Does the city care if someone is caught holding 25 grams or less? Consider this: Earlier this year, the Common Council voted to fine customers who swipe shopping carts from stores (store owners would be fined, too). The dollar amount for this heinous offense? Anywhere between $50 and $250 a year.

For more information on marijuana in Milwaukee, check out this Public Policy Forum report from 2015 (before the reduced fine was put into place).

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