While much of the country is improving marijuana laws, Wisconsin is trying to set the engine to reverse. In an America where 36 states have legalized marijuana in some form, Wisconsin Republicans are now trying to increase the criminalization of cannabis concentrates.
The bill (S.B. 440) is set on increasing the severity of legal penalties for any Wisconsin resident caught manufacturing or just possessing marijuana products which were obtained through butane extraction. Butane is a powerful solvent which can be used to extract tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA, which releases THC, the psychoactive component of the cannabis plant, when heated) and create concentrates with a higher potency than regular cannabis flower, known as BHO (short for Butane Hash Oil).
The result of this extraction can take many forms, such as a wax, a butter-like substance, simile-glass shards, etc; they are all more psychoactive than regular cannabis, but it is impossible to overdose on them. These concentrates are available for sale wherever recreational marijuana is sold, and they present absolutely no risk to users. Any Wisconsin resident can drive down to Illinois and legally buy BHO-derived concentrates at any dispensary south of the border—it is illegal in itself to cross state borders with legally purchased cannabis products, but it is well-documented that much of a clientele of Illinois dispensaries is made up of Wisconsinites. Those people would be in a difficult position if the Republican bill 440 were to pass.
S.B. 440 would increase the penalty for simple possession of BHO-derived concentrates from a class I felony (the most benign) to a class H felony for owning less than three grams; to a class G felony for less than 10 grams; to a class F felony for less than 50 grams; and to a class E felony for any other amount. Currently, a repeat offense of marijuana possession carries a maximum prison sentence of 3.5 years in Wisconsin, which is ridiculous in itself. Under the new Republican bill, the maximum sentence for possessing marijuana concentrates would increase to 15 years.
Current Wisconsin law criminalizes the cultivation and trafficking of marijuana much more harshly than simple possession. Getting 15 years in prison for it requires growing more than 200 plants or selling more than 22 pounds of cannabis. Republican lawmakers are trying to penalize individuals owning tiny amounts of personal-use cannabis concentrates as harshly as large-scale trafficking. Illinois dispensaries sell BHO concentrates, weighing 2 grams each, for relatively cheap. Your grandma could buy two such products to soothe her hip pain and, under this bill, she could be sentenced to 10 years of hard prison time.
State Rep. Jesse James (R), who introduced the bill, brings forth a few arguments that immediately lose any water under the tiniest bit of scrutiny. “Why is this bill being introduced?” Rep. James said. “The criminal elements and punishments of possessing, manufacturing and delivery of BHO is the same as marijuana. I understand marijuana is needed to make BHO, but the process is making a totally different product, with a higher potency, which sells at a higher rate, putting the lives of those who manufacture it and others at risk. Those who make BHO are intentionally doing so, knowing the dangers and risk, but are not taking it into consideration,” he explains.
Rep. James points out that illicit BHO extraction, done at home without appropriate equipment, can lead to explosions. While it is absolutely needed to disallow handling volatile chemical operations in residential areas, it does not in any way justify changing penalties for possession of the end product—especially given that the product in question can be easily purchased from manufacturers who do have appropriate equipment.
State Sen. Duey Stroebel (R), who introduced the bill in the Senate, added this justification for increasing the criminalization of marijuana: “Lawmakers in these states [which have legalized marijuana] have chased the lure of increased tax revenues and ending the so-called mass incarceration of ‘first-time, low-level, non-violent’ drug offenders. For context, drug possession was the most serious offense for 3.7% of our country’s state prison population in 2018.” It seems that, for Wisconsin Republicans, curbing the senseless mass incarceration of nonviolent innocents whose only offense was consuming a substance that is legal across state lines is not desirable. Indeed, 3.7% of the state prison population represents more than 50,000 innocents whose worst offense is possession of a psychoactive substance, and the police arrest more than half a million Americans on simple cannabis possession charges every single year.
The bill was already approved by several legislative committees—it was approved by the Committee on Substance Abuse and Prevention and the Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety already. Is it necessary to specify that both votes strictly followed party lines? In both committees, all Democrats voted against the bill, while all Republicans voted in favor. The Republicans on the Judiciary committee handwaved the bill through without so much as a discussion about it. As all relevant committees and both houses of the state legislature are Republican controlled, the bill seems likely to pass every hurdle without effort.