Madison, Wisconsin, will cease arresting folks for possession of marijuana


As a sign of progress for Wisconsin, Madison City Council voted Tuesday to update its laws to decriminalize marijuana use and possession.

Wisconsin was one of America’s most stubborn prohibition states. Even though more conservative states have legalized medical marijuana and adult cannabis, Wisconsin state law still provides severe criminal penalties for all forms of the substance.

At Madison, anyone 18 years or older can own up to an ounce of cannabis without fear of arrest. Just don’t do it outside the city limits.

The state’s capital is a progressive outlier, however, and it passed a law back in 1977 that allowed people to own and use marijuana in private homes. This week the council brought that law into the 21st century, decriminalizing cannabis across the city with the usual caveats on school property and motor vehicles.

Now anyone aged 18 and over can own and consume up to 28 grams (just under an ounce) of cannabis on public and private property – provided they have the permission of the builder, landlord or tenant.

“I am pleased that Madison will largely wipe out any arrests for cannabis or cannabis paraphernalia. This will significantly reduce the existing discretion that Madison officers have over cannabis possession and cannabis and drug paraphernalia,” said Alderman Mike Verveer , the author and co-sponsor of the legislation, told the Badger Herald.


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Still against state law, but not enforced in the city

While Wisconsin state law still makes it a crime to possess any amount of cannabis – even in Madison – the city police department will not bring charges against anyone weighing 28 grams or less to the Dane County Attorney’s Office .

The new rules:

In addition to the 28 ounces, people are allowed to own paraphernalia for cannabis use. Fines related to violations such as consuming private property without the owner’s consent are reduced. Smoking cannabis is still prohibited in places where cigarettes and other tobacco are still prohibited. Products and devices are prohibited or for people “in a motor vehicle in operation”. People are not allowed to own marijuana within 300 meters of a school or on school buses.

The new law is not without gaps. The police can still bring possession charges with intent to deliver, even in quantities less than 28 grams.


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Will the state follow suit?

Verveer, who co-authored and co-sponsored the updated ordinance, was quoted in the Wisconsin State Journal as saying the changes were long overdue and that it was “absurd and outrageous” that state lawmakers had not yet legalized marijuana, for example, in neighboring Michigan.

Melissa Sargent, a state official from Madison, has put in place laws that would fully legalize recreational cannabis, but her work has not yet taken full effect.

In a non-binding referendum in 2018, 76% of Dane County’s residents voted to allow adult cannabis to be passed on, Verveer said. Dane County includes Madison and its suburbs.

As in many other American cities, marijuana law enforcement in Madison has often been directed against black residents and other minorities, Verveer said. A 20-year study by the Madison Police Department found that although cannabis use was similar among all races, blacks were cited more often.

Dave Howard

Dave Howard is a national magazine editor and award-winning author. His latest book is Chasing Phil: The Adventures of Two Undercover Agents with the World’s Most Charming Con.

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