Milwaukee County Voters May See Marijuana Referendum on the Ballot

May 11, 2018

When Milwaukee County voters go to the polls this fall, they might see a question about pot. A proposed referendum would gauge how voters stand on the topics of marijuana legalization, taxation, and regulation.

The Milwaukee County Board's Judiciary, Safety and General Services Committee approved adding the following advisory referendum to the November ballot on Thursday:

Do you favor allowing adults 21 years of age and older to engage in the personal use of marijuana, while also regulating commercial marijuana-related activities, and imposing a tax on the sale of marijuana?

Supporters lined up to say "yes."

One supporter, Michael Mylnarski, said he's a traumatic brain injury survivor who says that pot eases his stress and language gaps. "Marijuana is so important to me to function," he said. "If I can’t find marijuana, I’ll just cease to function. I’ll be a bad father."

Many who testified argue there are other reasons making pot legal would benefit the community. County Board Supervisor Supreme Moore Omokunde said the change would help curb excessive stops and arrests for black residents. His district includes the 53206 zip code, which is known for having a high percentage of black men in prison.

“African-Americans are six times more likely to be arrested an in prison for marijuana," he said. "If you look at communities, having folks removed from communities, and look at our ability to have sustainable jobs afterwards, we need to decriminalize it as well and have retro-active decriminalization.”

Speakers also brought up economics, arguing that taxes raised through marijuana sales could help fund public schools and infrastructure.

Business owner Rachel Cartwright pointed to Colorado and said 2014-2015, Colorado created 16,000 new jobs because of the recreational cannabis industry. "Let’s just talk dollars and cents," she said. "16,000 jobs is way more than Foxconn promised us, and we don’t have to give any money to get ‘em. All we have to do is sign a bill that allows for the recreational consumption of cannabis.”

The advisory referendum wouldn’t actually change state law and legalize marijuana. But supporters say if it's approved, the results would send a message to the legislature from the county with the largest population in the state.

No one at the meeting spoke against the measure. Yet Supervisor John Weishan Jr., who proposed the referendum, said he has heard concerns from  a handful of constituents. "Some of it was the mythology that is out there that this will lead to a spike in crime," he said. "When in fact, where you look across the country where they’ve legalized marijuana, it’s been just the opposite."

Retired pharmacist Bob Dohnal disagrees with Weishan's take on the potential danger of the drug. Dohnal writes for the Wisconsin Conservative Digest and opposes both the referendum question and the legalization of marijuana.

He says that marijuana can be a gateway drug. “Pot can be used occasionally without a problem. But as soon as we get people that are habitually using this stuff and go on, we don’t need to add another problem to alcohol.” Dohnal says marijuana causes chemical changes to the brain, especially in youth. 

The referendum question would have to be approved by the full county board and the county executive, before being placed on the November ballot.