Report: Marijuana Citations Plummet in Milwaukee

Mar 21, 2016

As the fine for possessing small amounts of marijuana has dropped in Milwaukee, so to has the number of citations for it.

Over the past few months, the Public Policy Forum has been examining how the city's marijuana laws are enforced, in an effort to understand what they are accomplishing.

Their first report, released in May of 2015, looked at the inconsistencies between Milwaukee and its suburbs with regard to marijuana fines and enforcement. These findings played into the city's decision to significantly lower fines for possessing small amounts of pot.

The forum's newly released report studied four years of Milwaukee Police Department arrest and citation data for individuals charged only with the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

"We really wanted to dig deeper into the number of arrests that were actually being made for these low level marijuana infractions, and we also wanted to explore what are the resources being used by... the justice system to enforce a law that now carries with it, in the City of Milwaukee for a first time offense, a maximum penalty of fifty dollars," explains forum president Rob Henken.

The report found that arrests of individuals in the City of Milwaukee on charges of possessing 25 grams or less of marijuana declined 53% (1,308 to 613) from 2012 to 2015, a trend that is consistent with the overall trend of declining drug and general arrests in the city.

The report also found:

• Disparities exist with regard to those arrested for marijuana violations in Milwaukee. Of the low-level arrests, 72% involved African Americans, 82% involved individuals under the age of 30, and 88% involved males.

• Arrests are disproportionately occurring in poorer areas of the city.

• Despite the recent Common Council action to lower the maximum fine to $50, MPD officers still arrest all individuals charged with possessing small amounts (versus issuing citations on the street).

• In 2015, the MPD could have saved up to $141,000 and 3,040 hours of officer time if officers had not been required to make arrests.

"Of the more than 3,000 [arrests] over the four year period, about 72 percent involved African Americans," says Henken. "So that is clearly disproportionate to the percentage of the population in the City of Milwaukee where blacks make up about 39 percent of the population."

Despite lowering the fine for small-scale possession from $500 to $50 and  changing protocol that further restricts the circumstances under which minor marijuana infractions could result in criminal prosecution, Milwaukee Police Department officers still arrest all people apprehended for these infractions, according to Henken.

He also notes that this report brings up the issue of whether the police department would be willing to further change their policy and simply issue citations on the street for low level marijuana offenses instead of wasting officer hours and resources when an arrest is made.

"Or let's do as Madison has done which is to say that small amounts of possession by adults is legal as long as it's on private property," adds Henken. "Whether that's allowable under state law is debatable, but certainly nobody has gone and tried to change the law in the City of Madison despite what the State Legislature may feel about this issue."