Public Policy Forum Blog

Marijuana Policy in Milwaukee – Part II

Last spring, when the Forum waded into the controversial issue of marijuana policy, our motivation was simple: we wanted to determine whether, as some had alleged, the City of Milwaukee was arresting and incarcerating vast numbers of individuals for possessing small amounts of marijuana; and we wanted to explore the range of options available to City policymakers – in the context of national and state laws that still classify marijuana as a harmful and illegal drug – to alter that paradigm if it was true.

In our first report on the subject – released last May – we discovered that while considerable numbers of Milwaukee residents were being issued non-criminal, municipal citations for first-time possession of small amounts of marijuana, few were spending time behind bars for failure to pay the corresponding fines. Yet, in seeming contradiction to that finding, we also found that less than half of those cited were paying any amount of their fines, and less than a third were paying them in full.

Those findings prompted several questions that we now address in our second report on marijuana policy in Milwaukee, released this morning:

  • Is there a public good being served by arresting and then issuing citations to hundreds of individuals in Milwaukee each year for first-time possession of small amounts of marijuana?
  • What is the quantity of police resources being used to issue those citations, and could those resources be better spent on other law enforcement priorities?
  • What options might City of Milwaukee officials have to further modify municipal marijuana policy to alter this paradigm, if they were so inclined?

To tackle these questions, we examined four years of Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) arrest and citation data for individuals charged only with possession of small amounts of marijuana. We isolated those violations because we were interested in exploring policies that pertain to low-level marijuana violations that do not pose a meaningful threat to public safety.

We found that arrests of individuals in the City of Milwaukee on charges of possessing 25 grams or less of marijuana (with no simultaneous violation) declined from 1,308 to 613 from 2012 to 2015. That 53% decline is consistent with an overall trend of declining drug arrests and arrests in general in the city.

It's in the eye of the beholder whether 600 arrests per year for minor marijuana infractions are too many. However, the sharp downward trend supports statements made to us by MPD officials that seeking and making low-level marijuana arrests is not a departmental priority, and it should allay concerns that enforcement of marijuana ordinances is diverting vast amounts of resources from more serious crimes.

We also find, however, that there is a substantial racial disparity with regard to those who are arrested for marijuana violations in the City of Milwaukee, with 72% of those arrests involving African Americans. In addition, we sorted the arrests by zip code and found that they are disproportionately occurring in poorer areas of the city.

The report also reveals that despite action last June by the Milwaukee Common Council to lower the maximum fine for small-scale possession from $500 to $50 – as well as a new protocol developed by the Milwaukee County District Attorney that further restricts the circumstances under which minor marijuana infractions may result in criminal prosecution – MPD officers still arrest all individuals apprehended for such infractions, as opposed to issuing citations on the street. MPD officials link the policy to a provision in the Wisconsin statutes that requires fingerprinting and other identification strategies for any individual apprehended with a controlled substance.

The report analyzes the amount and cost of time spent by MPD officers in making such arrests, and then compares the results to a scenario in which officers instead issued citations without arresting, transporting, and booking arrestees at a district station. It finds that in 2015, the department could have saved up to $141,000 and 3,040 hours of officer time if no longer required to make arrests.

The report concludes that overall, there is far less reason to be concerned about excessive use of law enforcement resources in Milwaukee to enforce marijuana laws than there was four years ago.

Yet, there still may be grounds to consider additional modifications to City policies and ordinances. The low-level marijuana arrests that are occurring are in predominately African American and low-income parts of the city, which is cause for concern from the perspective of both social justice and police-community relations. Furthermore, the fact that arrests are occurring at all for violations that merit a maximum fine of $50 may suggest a level of law enforcement attention that is unnecessary and imprudent.

Jeffrey Schmidt