Wisconsin saw a record breaking turnout during last year’s midterm elections, and now residents like Marlon Rockett are coming forward to clarify that it was Milwaukee County’s non-binding referendum on whether recreational use of marijuana should be legalized that inspired so many people to make it to the polls.
According to the Associated Press, 70% of Milwaukee County voters support the legalization of marijuana because like much of the country, anti-cannabis laws that were previously in place seemed to disproportionately targeted Black residents.
In an analysis provided to the AP by nonprofit news organization Wisconsin Watch, in collaboration with Institute for Nonprofit News, data show that Blacks are at an increase risk for criminalization due to the existing laws concerning marijuana possession.
In Milwaukee, blacks made up 72% of “small-scale” marijuana possession arrests but 39% of the population between 2012 and 2015, according to research by the Public Policy Forum, a nonprofit, independent research organization. The Milwaukee-based group defined “small scale” as possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana.
The same research found whites made up 12% of the arrests but 37% of the city’s population.
The rate of using marijuana is similar between whites and blacks, University of Wisconsin-Madison sociology professor Pamela Oliver said.
“The only possibility for these statistics to happen is for police to be stopping blacks more than whites,” Oliver said. “Possession of marijuana is in the pocket. How did you know it was in their pocket unless you stopped them? We know the usage patterns are not different, so if you’re generating a difference in arrests, it has to be differential policing.”
“There’s a lot of things in our country that hold (Black people) back or promote the inequality,” said Rockett who co-hosts a podcast on issues affecting the Black community. “If anybody knew their history, they would know that cannabis is especially destructive.”
Substantiating his claims that marijuana laws are often thinly veiled tools, “used to help hold everyday Americans back,” is the fact that data from Wisconsin Watch shows in 2018, Blacks were four times more likely to be arrested as whites for marijuana possession in the state.
In the wake of the midterms and the communities overwhelming call for change, newly elected governor, Democrat Tony Evers, has announced budget proposals for statewide decriminalization of marijuana and legalization of it for medical use.
Evers’ decriminalization proposal, aimed at a reduction in Wisconsin’s racial disparities, people in possession of, manufacturing or distributing 25 grams or less of marijuana would be immune from penalties, according to the AP. The governor also said he wants people convicted of possessing small quantities of the plant to have a chance at getting their records expunged.
I’m all about connecting the dots. It’s time to connect the dots between racial disparities and economic inequity by legalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana. https://t.co/8mM8HHVuoa
— Governor Tony Evers (@GovEvers) July 15, 2019
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has pushed back that he would much rather the state stick to focusing on medical marijuana and opposes loosening enforcement against recreational usage.
“We’re not going to decriminalize it so people can carry around baggies of weed all over the state,” Vos said at a WisPolitics event in February.
But the state Department of Justice reported that Almost 15,000 adults in Wisconsin were arrested in 2018 for marijuana possession, which is a three percent increase from 2017. And the state Department of Correction says prison admissions in Wisconsin for marijuana also were higher in 2016 for Black residents than for whites.
Experts say there is no denying that these statistics underline assertions that law enforcement tends to police low-income neighborhoods with more residents of color, heavier than others.