A top Republican Wisconsin lawmaker announced on Thursday’s 4/20 cannabis holiday that GOP members are privately working on legislation to legalize medical marijuana—though Democratic leadership is already skeptical of the plan.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) didn’t provide details about the in-the-works proposals but said that the goal is to draft something with bipartisan appeal that could be enacted later this year.
The speaker stressed that he remains steadfastly opposed to adult-use cannabis legalization, telling The Associated Press that Wisconsin is neither a red nor blue state and is “at best purple, and purple is not legalization of recreational marijuana.”
With the legislature under GOP control, and leadership that’s been historically unwilling to advance modest cannabis reform legislation, the expectation is that the bill that’s apparently being workshopped will be restrictive.
Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard (D), who’s championed adult-use legalization, isn’t convinced that the speaker will make good on this latest promise.
“We’ve seen this story before—but actions speak louder than words,” she said. “Session after session, the Speaker has come forward with empty promises but no tangible steps toward any form of legal cannabis Wisconsin.”
Agard and Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R) spoke about the prospects of cannabis reform during a webinar hosted by the Wisconsin Policy Forum earlier this month.
Felzkowski, who’s previously sponsored medical cannabis legislation, said that she’s personally “very, very focused on getting medical marijuana across the finish line the session.”
But she told Marijuana Moment that there would be a need to “compromise” on the legislation, which would likely prohibit smoking cannabis and limit the conditions that would make people eligible for medical marijuana.
Wisconsin lawmakers are under pressure to provide some kind of regulated access to cannabis given the rapid regional policy shifts.
A report published in February found that 50 percent of Wisconsinites 21 and older live within 75 minutes of an out-of-state cannabis retailer, such as in Illinois or Michigan. That percentage stands to increase if legislative efforts to legalize marijuana in neighboring Minnesota are successful this session.
Wisconsin residents purchased more than $121 million worth of marijuana from legal retailers in neighboring Illinois in 2022, contributing about $36 million in tax revenue to the state, according to a recent legislative analysis requested by Agard.
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Meanwhile, Gov. Tony Evers (D) released his biennial budget request in February, and it again included language to legalize medical and recreational marijuana in the state.
The governor had previously signaled that he planned to put the adult-use measure in his request, despite a top GOP lawmaker warning that taking that step could compromise negotiations on more modest medical cannabis legislation.
Agard said last month that “if Republicans choose to remove it from the budget, I will once again introduce my bill to achieve this goal,” adding that it’s “high time we get this done for the betterment of our state and the people living here.”
As part of the governor’s budget request, his office estimated that the state would generate $44.4 million in “segregated tax revenue” from legal cannabis, as well as a $10.2 million increase in state general fund tax revenue, in fiscal year 2025 if the reform is enacted.
The governor also included adult-use and medical marijuana legalization in his 2021 budget, as well as decriminalization and medical cannabis in his 2019 proposal, but the conservative legislature has consistently blocked the reform.
Vos, the Assembly speaker, has said that trying to enact adult-use legalization through the budget could “poison the well” in the legislature, jeopardizing talks on medical cannabis, the leader of the Senate has expressed that he thinks the more modest policy is feasible this session.
“Our caucus is getting pretty close on medical marijuana,” Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R) said. “A lot of our members, who are maybe at a point where they can vote for it now, they just want to make sure it’s regulated well.”
The governor said that he was encouraged by the Senate leader’s remarks about nearing consensus on medical marijuana, and he’s prepared to sign such legislation as long as it’s not “flawed” by including too many restrictions.
Evers didn’t bring up his legalization proposal in his budget speech this year, but he did stress in his inaugural address last month that the state needs to have a “meaningful conversation about treating marijuana much like we do alcohol.”
Some Wisconsin lawmakers have filed bills to legalize cannabis for adult use—and former Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R) has said legalization is “likely” to happen at some point—but the legislature has so far failed to pass even more modest proposals like decriminalization or the legalization of medical cannabis.
Ahead of the November election, Evers met with college students and urged supporters to get engaged and vote, in part to ensure that the state advances marijuana legalization.
If Democrats had won enough seats, it could have also set them up to pass a resolution that the governor introduced to allow citizens to put initiatives on the ballot. Advocates expressed hope that the move could open the door to finally letting voters decide on marijuana legalization, but it’s unlikely that GOP lawmakers will go along with it.
Meanwhile, voters across the state have been making their voices heard on cannabis reform over the past several election cycles. Most recently, voters in three counties and five municipalities across the state approved non-binding advisory questions on their local ballots in support of legalization.
The local votes are largely meant to serve a messaging purpose, providing lawmakers with a clear policy temperature-check among their constituents. But those that were approved will not change any laws by themselves.
A statewide poll released in August found that a solid 69 percent of registered voters in Wisconsin believe that cannabis should be legal. That includes 81 percent of Democrats, 75 percent of independents and 51 percent of Republicans.
Republicans filed a limited medical cannabis bill last year—and it got a hearing on the unofficial marijuana holiday 4/20, but that came too late in the legislative session for lawmakers to actually vote on the measure.
Other GOP members have filed bills to more modestly decriminalize marijuana possession in the state, but none of those proposals advanced.
As it stands, marijuana possession is punishable by a maximum $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail for a first offense. People convicted of a subsequent offense would face a felony charge punishable by a maximum $10,000 fine and up to three and a half years in prison.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.
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