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Politics & Government

For Now, Pot Possession Fine Remains in the Hundreds of Dollars

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CREDIT JEREMYNATHAN - FOTOLIA.COM
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It appeared on Tuesday that Milwaukee’s Common Council would reduce the fine for marijuana possession.

Currently, the fine for possessing up to 25 grams is from $250 to $500. Ald. NikKovac wants to lower the penalty to from $0 to $50.

Kovac says the fine is unfair to black residents.

“Out of about 1,500 tickets last year, 1,250 were issued to African Americans, in a city that has approximately the same number of African Americans as whites,” Kovac says.

Kovac says the city’s policing practices and segregation cause the disproportionate ticket distribution. He says fines for what he calls the “victimless” crime of marijuana possession are “a tax” on people who can least afford it.

Ald. Robert Bauman is one of Kovac’s co-sponsors. Bauman says if the city reduces the fines, marijuana possession still would be illegal.

“It could be prosecuted several ways, at the discretion of the police and the district attorney. They can issue a ticket or they can step it up to a misdemeanor. Or if it’s a second offense, potentially a felony -- or if the quantity is larger, potentially felonies as well,” Bauman says.

Ald. Bob Donovan is among the opponents. He says he feels “without a doubt, that it sends the absolute wrong message to our community, to our young people.” Donovan says marijuana possession is not “victimless,” as Kovac claimed. Donovan says drug abuse has a devastating impact on families and society.

Ald. Robert Puente also spoke out against lower marijuana fines. He says the proposed range is much too low.

“We have 23 different bicycle violations that have a higher forfeiture than this. A dog and cat license forfeiture is higher than this,” Puente says.

While the debate began with talk about the fines’ impact on black residents, it later returned to the subject of race. Ald. Willie Wade spoke passionately, alleging racism is at the root of police treatment of African American men. He says the city must change the culture itself -- not just consider making drug possession fines more affordable.

“We’re just trying to adjust something that’s out of whack, but we got a bigger crisis to deal with. It is not OK to treat black males unfairly. It is not OK to treat anybody – anybody -- unfairly, especially when we have the facts and the data in front of us, that’s telling us that it’s unfair. Wake up,” Wade urged colleagues.

Ald. Ashanti Hamilton picked up the thread. He says he hopes the council debate about marijuana fines is just the start of an honest conversation about race.

“I’ve been on the council 10 years now, and despite the many policies that have come before us that I thought had racial undertones, had racism in them, this is the first time that I’ve actually heard us say the word on the floor,” Hamilton says.

As the debate wound down, five aldermen voted to postpone action until next month’s council meeting. They said they wanted to gather more input on the proposed ordinance, including from constituents, before making a decision.

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