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Top Wisconsin GOP Lawmaker Unwilling To Amend State-Run Medical Marijuana Bill To Address Senate Republican Leaders’ Concerns



The top Republican in the Wisconsin Assembly says he’s unwilling to compromise with his Senate colleagues who are opposed to his plan to create state-run dispensaries under a limited medical marijuana program.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) unveiled the medical cannabis bill last week, proposing the “most restrictive” medical cannabis law in the country. It quickly drew criticism—from Democrats who want comprehensive legalization, as well as Republican Senate leaders who have taken issue with the specifics of the proposal.

Vos said at a press conference on Tuesday that he has no plans to amend it to address his Senate counterparts’ concerns.

“We have a very detailed bill that I am pretty sure has 50 votes in our caucus to pass. So taking and re-negotiating the bill means we probably lose votes in our caucus,” the speaker said, as The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.

“I’d rather get us through to keep the promise we made, which is to have a comprehensive bill that can actually become law, as opposed to an ethereal idea that maybe somebody could support someday, but it never actually makes it anywhere,” Vos said.

The plan he and other Assembly Republicans detailed last week calls for bans on smokeable products, a limited list of qualifying conditions and just five state-run dispensaries.

Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R) said last Thursday that the state-controlled dispensary plan is a “non-starter for a lot of our caucus members,” questioning why the legislature would “let government grow the size of government.”

“My caucus, and maybe for a lot of members of the Assembly caucus, we campaign on controlling the size of government,” he said, drawing a comparison to “a DMV for medical marijuana.” That said, he agreed there “are a lot of good things in the bill” too that could be fodder for compromise.

Vos appears less willing to have that conversation, which could threaten to derail the limited reform push before formal debates have even started.

Another problem for the Assembly bill is the fact that Senate President Chris Kapenga (R) indicated he’s broadly against even an intentionally restrictive medical cannabis legalization bill, saying that while the proposal “makes efforts to reduce abuse, data on the efficacy of marijuana as a treatment is inconclusive at best, with dangerous and harmful effects at worst, including public safety concerns.”

Sen. Melissa Agard (D), who has led the charge on broader cannabis legalization in the legislature over recent sessions, told Marijuana Moment last week that the disconnect between the Assembly and Senate GOP doesn’t necessarily surprise her.

“Over the last few sessions, we’ve witnessed Wisconsin Republicans giving false hope to patients who would greatly benefit from medical marijuana,” she said. “Unfortunately, it appears the GOP’s latest policy proposal is nothing more than a continuation of their pattern of smoke and mirrors when it comes to cannabis reform.”

Under the Assembly GOP plan, as described, the state would create a restrictive system that limits patients to smokeless cannabis options such as oils and edibles. People with qualifying conditions would be eligible to receive a doctor’s recommendation and access the products, which would be sold at five dispensaries across the state.

The qualifying conditions include cancer, epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), glaucoma, severe chronic pain, muscle spasms, chronic nausea, multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, Alzheimer’s disease and terminal illness with less than one year life expectancy.

While the dispensaries would be state-run, growers and processors would be independently operated if they obtain a permit from the state. The pharmacists who dispense the cannabis to patients would be state employees.

According to a legislative analysis, the bill would create an Office of Medical Cannabis Regulation (OMCR) under DHS to regulate the program and manage a statewide patient and caregiver registry. The Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) would be responsible for overseeing the cultivation, processing and testing.

Only the OMCR would be allowed to sell medical cannabis products to patients, and it must set prices “only at a level sufficient to recoup product and operational costs.” Medical cannabis would be exempt from the state sales tax under the proposal. Dispensaries would also be prohibited from advertising their services.

The legislation specifically keeps in place laws that allow employers to prohibit cannabis use, even if it’s used lawfully under the medical marijuana program.

Gov. Tony Evers (D), who supports more broadly legalizing recreational marijuana, surprised some by saying earlier this month, ahead of the release of the details of the GOP Assembly plan, that he’d be inclined to sign a limited reform into law as long as the bill didn’t contain “poison pills.”

After details were disclosed, a spokesperson for the governor gave a non-committal reaction, saying Evers “looks forward to hearing from Wisconsinites and other stakeholders as the bill moves through the legislative process.”

The governor also recently said that the GOP legislature’s inaction over recent years has meant Wisconsin “is losing out to our neighboring states” that have enacted the reform.

“It’s high time we legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana in Wisconsin much like we do with alcohol,” said Evers, who granted another round of pardons, including dozens issued for people with prior marijuana convictions, in November.

Vos, the Assembly speaker, said last month he’s “pretty confident” the legislature will approve the medical marijuana legislation, even if it’s “just Republican votes” that get it across the finish line.

Meanwhile, Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R), who has previously filed limited medical cannabis legislation, has said that Democratic-led efforts to push adult-use legalization have complicated Republicans’ work on modest reform.

Marijuana Moment is tracking more than 1,000 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

The state Department of Revenue released a fiscal estimate of the economic impact of Agard’s legalization bill in November, projecting that the reform would generate nearly $170 million annually in tax revenue.

Also, a legislative analysis requested by the minority leader estimated that Wisconsin residents spent more than $121 million on cannabis in Illinois alone last year, contributing $36 million in tax revenue to the neighboring state.

Despite all that, the conservative legislature has long resisted even incremental reform—stripping marijuana proposals from the governor’s budget requests, for example.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of Wisconsin lawmakers formally introduced a measure to decriminalize marijuana possession last month. Sponsors hope the limited, noncommercial reform will win enough support to clear the state’s GOP-controlled legislature and become law in parallel with the separate medical cannabis bill.

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Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.

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