A top Republican Wisconsin senator says his caucus is “getting pretty close” to supporting medical marijuana legalization, and he could foresee the GOP-controlled chamber advancing the reform as long as certain regulations were put in place.
Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R) has long been skeptical of legalizing any form of cannabis use, but his latest comments to The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel signal that the conservative legislature may finally be positioned to move on the issue this session.
“Our caucus is getting pretty close on medical marijuana,” he 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.”
He added that GOP lawmakers “don’t want people going in because their back hurts and getting medical marijuana. It needs to be cancer pain—you know, prescribed.”
Advocates and many Democratic lawmakers, as well as Gov. Tony Evers (D), have been calling on the legislature go further than a limited medical cannabis program—but LeMahieu’s remarks represent a starting point.
Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard (D), who has sponsored legalization legislation in past sessions, told the Journal Sentinel that she doesn’t want Wisconsin’s medical marijuana system to pick “winners and losers” in terms of what conditions qualify patients for cannabis. But she’s looking forward to reviewing any marijuana bills that her GOP colleagues end up filing.
“I will always be a champion for full legalization of cannabis in Wisconsin,” she said. “I know that’s what a majority of people in our state want and we know the most dangerous thing about cannabis is that it remains legal.”
In the Assembly, Speaker Robin Vos (R) has been open to advancing medical marijuana legalization. And he’s talked about the issue recently as the governor prepares to release his executive budget proposal, which is expected to contain provisions that deal with both medical and recreational cannabis legalization.
Vos said last month that if the governor followed through on including recreational legalization in his budget, that could jeopardize lawmakers’ efforts to find cross-party consensus on medical cannabis.
Evers said during his inaugural address on Tuesday that the state needs to have a “meaningful conversation about treating marijuana much like we do alcohol.”
In its budget request that was unveiled last month, the state Department of Revenue (DOR) called on the governor to put legalization in his executive proposal. The State Public Defender (SDP) is separately seeking decriminalization of cannabis possession.
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The governor included recreational and medical marijuana legalization in his 2021 budget and decriminalization and medical cannabis in his 2019 proposal, but the GOP-controlled legislature has blocked the reforms.
Some state lawmakers have also filed bills to legalize cannabis for adult use—and 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 recently 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.
The governor vetoed a GOP-led bill last year that would have significantly ramped up criminal penalties for people who use butane or similar fuels to extract marijuana.
And in the interim as lawmakers pursue reform, the governor has issued hundreds of 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.