A top Wisconsin Assembly lawmaker says that marijuana legalization is essentially an inevitability in the state where the Republican-dominated legislature has routinely blocked reform—but that more limited medical cannabis legislation has a better shot of being enacted in the near term.
In an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio on Monday, Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R) was prompted with new polling showing that bipartisan majorities favor ending cannabis criminalization and asked whether the legislature might advance legalization.
“It’s an interesting question,” Steineke said. “Obviously other states throughout the country are moving in that direction. I think that’s likely the direction at some point, with the state of Wisconsin, goes.”
He caveated that he feels enacting medical cannabis legalization will be a “more likely” possibility as an initial step. But while adult-use legalization “has a much tougher path to get through the legislature actually [being] signed into law, I do think we’re heading in that direction.”
Listen to Steineke’s cannabis comments, about 35:10 into the audio below:
The challenge will be crafting the “right legislation that is tight enough to pass something,” he said, adding that he’s “always been a supporter” of that approach.The leader also took a question from a caller who expressed frustration that medical marijuana has not been made available for her father, who she’s been caring for as he’s suffered from Parkinson’s disease. She wanted to know why lawmakers have failed to act.Steineke said that the “real issue is really the the ability of the legislature to craft a medicinal marijuana bill in a way that doesn’t open up the door wide to recreational marijuana.”
“I think that’s the biggest concern amongst lawmakers and law enforcement general—that it doesn’t make a medicinal marijuana bill, doesn’t become a de facto recreational marijuana bill,” he said. “That’s one of the challenges that we’ve faced over the years in trying to craft something that would help people like your dad without making it basically a recreational marijuana bill.”
“We’ve had some challenges trying to write language that’s tightened up to keep it to the medicinal purposes,” he said.
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The poll referenced in the radio interview found that support for marijuana reform continues to grow in Wisconsin, with 61 percent of voters saying they favor legalization, compared to 31 percent who oppose the policy change.
But one of the most notable findings from the poll is that support for adult-use legalization among Republican voters has officially reached majority status, with 51 percent of those who identify as GOP backing the reform. That’s an eight percentage point increase since the university conducted the first survey in 2013.
Despite the rising, bipartisan embrace for legalization in Wisconsin, the GOP-controlled legislature has yet to meet the moment, consistently blocking reform from advancing as the Democratic governor and lawmakers from his party have pushed for it. But there are signs of movement, including among Republican lawmakers.
More than a dozen Republican Wisconsin lawmakers announced in January that they were filing a bill to legalize medical marijuana in the state, for example.
The Republican-led medical cannabis legislation is also fairly restrictive, as it prohibits smokable marijuana products and doesn’t allow patients to grow cannabis for personal use. Patients could only obtain cannabis preparations in the form of oils, pills, tinctures or topicals.
It does not appear that the measure, sponsored by Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R) and Rep. Patrick Snyder (R), contains equity provisions like expungements that are favored by progressives.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) has expressed support for medical cannabis reform, and the lead Senate sponsor said at a press conference in January that Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R) is “more than willing” to hold a hearing on the proposal.
“Currently 36 other states, including our neighbors Michigan, Illinois, and Minnesota, have passed laws allowing patients with certain medical conditions to access medical marijuana if their doctors recommend it,” a co-sponsorship memo that Felzkowski and Snyder sent to fellow legislators says. “Medicine is never one-size-fits-all, and it is time for Wisconsin to join the majority of the country in adding another option which may help patients find the relief they need.”
The memo also discusses how voters in multiple cities and counties across Wisconsin have strongly approved local, non-binding ballot referendums expressing support for marijuana reform in recent years.
This isn’t the only cannabis bill that’s up for consideration in the Wisconsin legislature.
In November, a bipartisan pair of legislators introduced a bill to decriminalize low-level marijuana possession. In August, three senators separately filed legislation to legalize cannabis for adult use in the state.
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.
Gov. Tony Evers (D) tried to legalize recreational and medical marijuana through his proposed state budget last year, but a GOP-led legislative committee stripped the cannabis language from the legislation. Democrats tried to add the provisions back through an amendment, but Republicans blocked the move.
The governor also recently vetoed a GOP-led bill that would have significantly ramped up criminal penalties for people who use butane or similar fuels to extract marijuana.
Other Republican lawmakers have filed bills to more modestly decriminalize marijuana possession in the state, but none of those proposals advanced during last year’s session.
Evers held a virtual town hall event last year where he discussed his cannabis proposal, emphasizing that polling demonstrates that Wisconsin residents back the policy change.
And in the interim as lawmakers pursue reform, the governor has issued more than 300 pardons during his years in office, primarily to people convicted of non-violent marijuana or other drug offenses.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.