Tuesday was a big day for Milwaukee. First, the downtown portion of Old World Third Street was renamed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Second, Sylvia Ortiz-Velez, Milwaukee county supervisor of District 12, proposed legislation that would reduce the fine for marijuana possession—and possession and delivery of drug paraphernalia—within Milwaukee County to no more than one dollar.
“The purpose of it being reduced to a dollar fine is in the hopes that officers will simply forgo writing a ticket,” Ortiz-Velez says.
A press conference was held on Tuesday, February 9. Supervisor Ortiz-Velez was joined by County Board Chairwoman Marcelia Nicholson, Southeastern Wisconsin NORML Executive Director Eric Marsh, and Glendale Mayor Bryan Kennedy.
“I am grateful for all of my colleagues,” Ortiz-Velez says. “The 53204 and 53215 zip codes have the highest rates for opiate and heroin overdoses. Passing this legislation would help a ton of people to reduce their opiate use or even get off it completely by using marijuana instead.”
Ortiz-Velez continues: “There have been fines that go up to $950 for a third of a gram, and most of the time it will not get paid. It will eventually get turned over to a collection agency, which is then put on a credit report. All these fines do is perpetuate a cycle of poverty.”
People of color are more likely to be arrested in Wisconsin for marijuana possession. Current Milwaukee County ordinance sets the fine for marijuana possession at no less than $250, and no more than $500. In 2019, 187 citations for marijuana possession were issued in Milwaukee County.
“My group and I refer to ourselves as the cannabis coalition and have been working on this proposal for the last three months,” Ortiz-Velez says. “We hope to present legislation in the future that will expunge previous marijuana charges from people’s records. Fines can be removed entirely, and I am hoping to see action from the City of Milwaukee.”
The resolution would only apply to violations of 25 grams or less of marijuana. Law enforcement would still be able to issue citations, if needed, for possession of larger amounts.
“Even if we don’t get any legislation, I am hoping to protect the people in our communities with the tools we have,” Ortiz-Velez says. “That includes the City of Milwaukee and all the surrounding cities. Wisconsinites have lost substantial revenues. Compared to Illinois, we are losing a lot of revenue. We have also burdened our criminal justice system and have made it difficult for people to get access to the medicine they need.”
Gov. Tony Evers presented his 2021-23 biennial budget over the weekend, which calls for recreational and medical marijuana programs in Wisconsin. Marijuana would be taxed like alcohol, generating more than $165 million annually. Traditionally, however, Republicans have not supported a legalization bill.
“For them to not support it this time around seems very short-sighted,” Ortiz-Velez says. “There are many benefits for the state, and many changes that can be brought about with the revenues. The numbers in the budget are a little more conservative. This has the potential to be huge.”