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Wisconsin and Marijuana and the Drug War

Colorado and Washington State are backing away from the Drug War, having recently decriminalized minor marijuana offenses. The long-term prospects for widespread drug prohibition, of the kind we’ve had for a generation, aren’t good: it’s been too much money, and for no lasting gain.

It’s a fair guess that by the 2033, the hundred-year anniversary of federal Prohibition, a majority of states will have abandoned current anti-drug initiatives in favor of an approach that regulates marijuana like wine, reduces other narcotics’ criminal penalties, increases funding for addiction treatment, but costs less (overall) than the Drug War.

(I don’t smoke, and it’s an understatement to say that I’m not jonesing for a joint. Mine is a policy objection: the Drug War’s been ineffective at reducing use, left true & regrettable addiction unremedied, and wasted vast sums in the process.)

In this new framework, people won’t think drug use is a general good; they’ll just combat genuine addiction, where it exists, more directly. It will be a more healthful and yet less expensive approach.

Theses changes will reach us in Wisconsin, but they’ll probably reach Wisconsin after most of America has abandoned the Drug War. I think so on the basis of a post from Prof. Michael O’Hear of Marquette Law, entitled, “Why Does Wisconsin Arrest Twice as Many People for Marijuana Possession as Minnesota?”

O’Hear’s post isn’t about the future of the Drug War, but I think his observation that Wisconsin arrests more frequently (over 2x as often) than neighboring (and demographically similar) Minnesota for marijuana possession suggests that Wisconsin’s punitive approach will prove relatively intractable. (In fact, O’Hear notes that right now, the conventional War on Drugs is being fought in both Wisconsin and Minnesota.)

O’Hear writes that

It seems unlikely that differences in marijuana use could account for such a large difference in the arrest rates. Indeed, based on the National Survey of Drug Use and Health, it appears that marijuana use in Minnesota is, if anything, slightly higher than in Wisconsin. So, the differences in arrest rates probably result to a significant degree from differences in police behavior. What drives those differences is not immediately apparent from any data that I have seen.

As I have observed in earlier posts, differences in criminal-justice outputs between the two states cry out for justification because the two states are so similar in population size and crime rate.

Indeed, I began this series of occasional blog posts in order to try to better understand why it is that Wisconsin’s per capita incarceration rate is more than twice Minnesota’s.

Prof. O’Hear also observes – without ascribing motivation – the large disparity between the racial impact of marijuana arrests:

Whatever the cause of Wisconsin’s arrest rate, there is clearly a racial dimension to it, whether intentional or not. The marijuana possession arrest rate for black adults is nearly six times higher in Wisconsin than the rate for whites (1,255 per 100,000 residents versus 217). The racial disparity among juveniles is also quite pronounced (585 per 100,000 black; 189, white). Yet, surveys indicate that levels of marijuana use are at most only slightly higher for blacks than whites (e.g., 9.8% of blacks report using marijuana in the past month, as opposed to 8.5% of whites).

Similar rates of use, but six times the rate of arrests for black residents over that of whites.

I’d suggest that whatever motivates Wisconsin’s higher arrest rate, and also our disparate rate of arrest between blacks and whites, will prove an impediment to drug reform in our state. We’re starting out with a more punitive, and partial, stance over marijuana than elsewhere.

Current policies here will, over time, be discarded. (That’s a demographic certainty.)

It will just take more time here than elsewhere, I wouldn’t wonder.

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