Local leaders can lead the way on smart drug policy

The so-called War on Drugs has been one of America’s greatest failures. Nationwide police make over 1 million drug possession arrests per year. As a country with less than 5% of the world’s population, we also host 20% of the world’s incarcerated population. 1 in 5 of America’s incarcerated individuals are in jail for drug offenses.

Across the United States, regular people are sick and tired of watching politicians fight problems like overdoses and addiction with old solutions. A 2021 national poll found that 59% of Americans support decriminalizing all drug possession.

Two members of Congress have introduced a bill titled the Drug Policy Reform Act. This legislation would eliminate incarceration as a punishment for drug possession, retroactively expunge possession convictions, invest in alternative harm reduction programming, and place drug classification powers with the Department of Health and Human Services as opposed to the DEA.

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Some states and municipalities have already started to make bold moves. In Oregon, a 2020 ballot initiative decriminalized possession of all drugs and created a system that offers all individuals caught in possession of dangerous drugs with a path towards treatment instead of a path towards a criminal record.

Colorado, which was the first state to legalize recreational marijuana, has also become the first state to legalize safe and natural psychedelic medicines and to accompany this reform with a new access program to help patients safely use these medicines for the treatment of PTSD, depression, and other mental health ailments. Cities including Seattle, Washington, D.C., and more have also decriminalized or legalized certain drugs.

While support for these common sense reforms spreads, the state of Wisconsin remains completely in the dark ages of the War on Drugs. Cannabis, one of the least dangerous drugs in the world, remains completely criminalized. Marijuana is legalized for medical use in 37 states and has also been legalized for recreational use in 21 states, plus Washington D.C. and Guam.

Both in 2018 and in 2022 voters throughout Wisconsin voted in favor of advisory referendums supporting legal medical and recreational cannabis markets in the state. Those pleas have been ignored by a State Legislature more consumed by partisan politics than by doing what their constituents are demanding.

There have been hints of progress. Local officials in Madison, Milwaukee, Eau Claire, and many other municipalities have taken action to effectively decriminalize cannabis in their municipalities. By lowering fines for marijuana possession to $1, passing memorandums of lowest enforcement possible, and through the morals of prosecutors refusing to prosecute unjust laws, the criminalization of cannabis in Wisconsin is a reduced threat to some state residents. Kenosha stands out as a glaring exception to this.

In 2018, 88% of Kenosha County Residents voted “yes,” declaring they believed marijuana should be legal as medicine. In 2022, the city of Kenosha voted in a nearly 72% margin in support of legalizing recreational marijuana. Despite this, local officials have not changed local ordinance to reflect the views of their constituents.

Currently, local ordinancse in the City of Kenosha gives police the ability to assign a fine for marijuana possession anywhere from $10 to $750, with the ticket typically being above $300. On a second marijuana possession offense, an individual can face even more trouble by facing the potential for a misdemeanor or felony charge. Laws like this make marijuana dangerous. Getting caught with a plant less harmful than legal alcohol can directly lead to fines and arrests that could upend a person’s life.

Legalizing marijuana at the state level would take the onus off of our local officials and would do incredible things for the State’s tax revenue and the safety of residents choosing to use marijuana. Regulation keeps substances like this safe and that safety has become a major concern as fentanyl is found in more and more unlikely places. If our leaders at the State level can’t get it done, our communities should take what we can into our own hands.

Wisconsin is falling behind on smart drug policy, and Kenosha is behind other cities and counties throughout the state. Drug addiction and criminalization is an issue touching the lives of more Americans than most other issues. It shouldn’t be partisan or controversial to transition to a healthcare based approach to drug possession or to respond to mass majorities calling for marijuana to be regulated just like alcohol.

However, if we are going to move past the partisanship and private interests holding our state and our nation back on these policies, local elected officials have to stand up and make bold policy decisions.

Kyle Flood is president of Kenosha Residents for Cannabis Reform.

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