A guest post by Kenosha Alderman Dave Mau.
In 2018, Kenosha County voted 88% in favor of medical cannabis. Thirteen other Wisconsin counties did the same and all passed with landslides. Last November, Kenosha voted again, this time for recreational legalization, at a whopping 72%. My guess is we’ll never see another political issue where so many people are in agreement, across both sides of the political aisle.
The hallmark of good governance is listening to the will of the people. The citizens are the bosses of elected officials. Yet the State has chosen to ignore these ballot initiatives. 22 states have fully legalized, and WI is one of only 11 states left that doesn’t allow medicinal use. But even if the State is not taking action, the law allows cities to set the penalty for first offenses of small amounts (under 25 grams).
Kenosha’s current fine is up to $750. Many other WI cities have set their fines to $1, such as Green Bay, La Crosse, Eau Claire, Milwaukee County, Stevens Point, Madison and more1. Wisconsin is also surrounded by legalized states, and Kenosha residents can access a legal product just a few miles south of us (there is now a store in Waukegan). So I’d like to bring us more in line with what the other cities and surrounding states are doing. I’ve proposed to reduce our fine down to $1, with the exception of minors, or on school grounds, or consuming in a vehicle. (The current laws remain intact for those exceptions, and for large amounts or dealing.)
There are several moral cases for lowering the fine, centering around principles of personal freedom, justice, and public health. My intent is to alleviate the cost burden on citizens who are simply possessing a plant found in nature – a plant that is often recommended by doctors. The punishment should fit the “crime”, and the City can do its part in alleviating the costs of what the public believes is an unjust law.
I believe in limited government, freedoms and bodily autonomy, and I believe these are constitutional and conservative values. The government should not be telling you what you can put into your own bodies. Politicians and law enforcement officials don’t know better than the individual, and they certainly don’t know better than your individual doctors. As long as there is no victim and no crime committed, a citizen needs to have the right to make their own decisions. That moral threshold was breached when, for example, Anthony Fauci was allowed to force authoritarian medical decisions on the whole country while lying to us the entire time. Another obvious breach was alcohol Prohibition, and we all know how that turned out.
Criminalizing cannabis has failed to curb its use, so it begs the question: Does the current fine really deter citizens, or does it just impose an undue burden on them and our justice system?
To answer that, let’s look at numbers from our Police Department and municipal court. In 2022, police issued 222 citations. Only 165 were convicted, meaning 26% were dismissed. Those convictions totaled $47,000 in fines, of which we’ve recouped only $21,000. The year before that (2021), there were $36,000 in fines and only half of it recouped. That means the city is putting resources and effort into a losing game, and losing money. 38% of those cited in 2022 identified as Black, even though they are only 10.6% of Kenosha’s population. Keep in mind these tickets are for non-criminal 1st offenses for small amounts, and studies show that Whites use cannabis at the same rate as Blacks.
There is irrefutable evidence that cannabis is an “exit drug” – a safe and effective gateway to getting out of opioid abuse. The Journal of the American Medical Association reported that states with medical cannabis have a 25% lower opioid overdose mortality rate2. According to the University of Pittsburgh and the NIH, opioid-related emergency department visits have gone down by 8% in states that have legalized cannabis3. Researchers at U of Kentucky, U of Georgia, and Emory University reported that medicalization was associated with less opioid prescriptions, and legalization improved the rate even more4. Scientists and doctors have continually shown many other medical benefits, including studies indicating cannabis protects against age-related declines in brain function5, and improves core social symptoms in people with autism spectrum disorder6. Cannabis has been proven to treat AIDS/HIV, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, asthma, cancer, insomnia, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, concussions, bi-polar disorder – just to name a few. It’s time for lawmakers to stop placing political ideology above the health and safety of citizens, and to acknowledge the safety and efficacy of cannabis.
Violence and shootings have become a major concern in Kenosha. But criminalizing cannabis empowers criminals with more black-market money for them to buy illegal guns. By busting a dealer, the market doesn’t shrink. Instead, it creates a gap in the market and increases crime because it creates two or more competitors who can fight to fill the gap. Fentanyl contamination is also a concern, which doesn’t happen at legal stores with oversight and regulations. Bringing the market into the light of day and educating our citizens is the only way to curb any crime adjacent to cannabis, as well as stop the accidental contamination or purposeful “lacing”.
So there are many reasons why I believe this proposal will be good for Kenosha. But the most important reason is the will of the people. They have voted. Vox populi.
I understand that some may still have concerns because cannabis has been stigmatized for so long. There is plenty of conjecture and fear mongering. The stigmatizing voices are often people who have something to gain politically or financially. So here are answers to some criticisms that might be had:
Lower fines don’t increase use: According to a study out of Northwestern, fine amounts (and even likelihood of being caught) have no impact or an opposite impact on cannabis-use deterrence7. The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) found that $36.1 million in Illinois cannabis tax revenues last year came from sales made to Wisconsin residents, also implying that the fine is not a deterrent8.
Teen use has gone down: A study in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry found that the number of teens using cannabis is falling as more states legalize9. Surveys from the first two states to regulate (CO and WA) also show decreases in teen use. Illegal dealers don’t ask for ID, so in unregulated states, it’s easier for children to get cannabis than it is to get alcohol. Regulating cannabis reduces youths’ involvement in illegal sales. The NIH reported dramatic year-over-year decreases in cannabis use by those ages 12 to 1710.
Cannabis is not addictive: According to the CDC, nearly one-third of American adults are “excessive” drinkers11 and would experience withdrawals. On the other hand, cannabis is not physically addictive, and only 9% of users are habitual. “It’s a myth that cannabis is addicting,” says Dr. Richard Clark Kaufman12.
Cannabis is not a gateway drug: Studies by researchers at the University of Minnesota, CU Boulder and the CU Anschutz Medical Campus have determined that cannabis use does not increase substance use disorders or use of other illicit drugs and may reduce alcohol-related problems13. Further, there is evidence that cannabis is an “exit” drug, as stated above.
We have centuries of data: Humans have been using cannabis for over 10,000 years. In this area alone, Native Americans consumed it, our forefathers cultivated it, and Wisconsin was dominant in hemp. It was used widely in the 19th century as a medicinal ingredient to treat ulcers, asthma and other ailments. It wasn’t criminalized until about 1940, fueled by overt racism and fear of Mexican immigrants14. Since then, thirteen states decriminalized cannabis in the 1970’s including Oregon in 1973. Madison, WI decriminalized way back in 1977. From 1975 to 2015, at least 33 countries have decriminalized or legalized. Washington State and Colorado became the first states to legalize (out of 22) in 2012.
The City can take responsibility: While I agree that the State should take action, cities also bear responsibility. State law allows cities to set the penalties. If the State didn’t want Kenosha to have a low fine, why would they allow it in law?
Fewer traffic fatalities: My proposal doesn’t change the penalty for consuming in a vehicle. However, statistics on cannabis-related accidents are inaccurate because we’re testing now more than we ever did in the past. And because cannabis stays in the body for up to 30 days, drivers can test positive without being intoxicated. New legal substances like CBD and Delta 8 can also test positive in drug tests. Regardless, researchers at Florida Polytechnic University concluded that cannabis legalization actually correlates with fewer traffic fatalities, because of its association with replacing alcohol15.
Cannabis is safe: There have been no deaths in 10,000 years of cannabis use. As a comparison, according to the CDC, more than 140,000 people die from excessive alcohol use in the US each year16. And many other legal plants are very dangerous. For instance, you can make aspirin from willow bark and have a fatal overdose. Lima beans, raw almonds and apricot pits all contain cyanide. Morning glory seeds, nutmeg and turmeric – to name only a few – all have potent psychedelic properties. There are dangers and benefits to almost all things that surround us in our daily lives, yet we know cannabis to be relatively safe.
Emergency Room visits are overblown: Cannabis has extremely low toxicity, and the human body naturally produces endocannabinoids. Although benign, excessive amounts might cause nausea or vomiting (as with most things). Educating the public would reduce the amount of ER visits because quite often, there is nothing for the doctors to do other than hydrate. Legal and regulated markets have child-proof containers. In terms of injuries, 21% of all ER injuries are attributed to alcohol, while studies show that cannabis actually decreases the risk of injury17.
Kenosha won’t be unique: Kenosha has legalization all around us, and lower fines have decades of precedence in WI. There’s no reason to suggest that a lower fine will encourage people to come to Kenosha when Illinois is right here.
Legalization will be here soon: Governor Tony Evers’ has legalization in this year’s budget, and the legislature is eyeing medicinal regulation. In October, Biden pardoned all federal offenses. Legalization is coming whether we want it or not, so from a law enforcement perspective, do we want to continue to ease into this and have a smart and calculated transition, or do we want to have a sudden and abrupt transition?
- Madison has fully decriminalized, but by state law they are only allowed to do that with approval from their county’s District Attorney. Our DA Mike Graveley said he is not willing to do that here. I don’t believe one man should have that much power against the voice of the people, but with his decision in mind, lowering the fine is the only option available to Kenosha.