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Wisconsin Democratic Lawmaker Says GOP Speaker Pulled Kratom Bill From Floor To Avoid Medical Marijuana Showdown, As Poll Shows 86% Support



A Wisconsin Democratic lawmaker says he suspects Republican Assembly leadership pulled a kratom bill from floor consideration last week out of concern about an amendment he filed that would have forced a vote on medical marijuana legalization. The move came as the GOP speaker retreated on his own limited cannabis legislation that a top Republican senator criticized as anti-free market.

Meanwhile, a new poll shows overwhelming bipartisan support for medical cannabis legalization in Wisconsin, with 86 percent of registered voters in favor of the reform, including 78 percent of Republicans.

Rep. Darrin Madison (D) hatched the amendment plan with other members of his caucus ahead of last Thursday’s floor session: To show Democrats’ willingness to compromise on the issue, he and Rep. Sylvia Ortiz-Velez (D) moved to attach a comprehensive medical marijuana measure to an unrelated kratom bill, bucking accusations from GOP lawmakers that his party was only interested in complete adult-use legalization.

But Republican leadership ultimately removed the underlying bill from the agenda, and Madison told Marijuana Moment he does “totally” believe it’s related to his cannabis amendment. The Republican Assembly speaker—who had just hours earlier told reporters that his own restrictive standalone medical cannabis proposal was effectively dead for the session—wanted to avoid a showdown on the floor, the amendment sponsor said.

Worse for the speaker would have been a situation where the Democratic-led legislation actually advanced on the floor, which Madison thinks it might have.

“They had a version of the bill that was not going to fly through the Senate, and mine had a better potential than theirs,” he said.

That’s partly because the Democrats’ amendment would not have created a system of state-run dispensaries as Speaker Robin Vos’s (R) bill called for—a component quickly dismissed as a “non-starter” by Republican Senate leaders but one that the Assembly sponsor said he was unwilling to compromise.

When Vos affirmed that he would not be moving to advance his bill before the body adjourns for the session this week, he said it was because the GOP-controlled Senate wanted a more “liberal” version, so he would instead be holding public hearings to rally support for his proposal in preparation for next year’s session. Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R) pushed back on that characterization in a new interview, however, arguing that the state-run dispensary model ran counter to conservatives’ free market principles.

“Why would we grow the size of government? If it’s a drug that’s being prescribed, why would we only have five locations and have it be state employees?” LeMahieu said. “That was the big sticking point. I mean, calling a conservative or liberal—I’d rather not add more government employees to the situation.”

Asked whether he feels there’s generally enough support for medical cannabis legalization to pass in the Senate, the majority leader told WISN that “I think we can get there but not with state-run dispensaries.”

“We need some tight guardrails around there to make sure that it’s being prescribed for actual medical uses. But then I think we could potentially get 17 votes there,” he said.

Madison, for his part, said that in the Assembly he knows “for a fact there are folks who I’ve talked to within the Republican caucus” who have told him that if he secured a vote on a medical cannabis bill, “they’d vote for it.” Those conversations weren’t around the specific amendment he put forward, but the theoretical commitment could help explain why the speaker opted against taking up the unrelated bill that could have revealed some level of bipartisan support for something that went further than the GOP standalone bill.

Meanwhile, among voters, it seems clear that there’s consensus around the issue. A poll released by Marquette Law School this month found 86 percent of voters back medical cannabis legalization—including 95 percent of Democrats, 84 percent of independents and 78 percent of Republicans. A smaller but still significant majority of voters (63 percent) are in favor of complete legalization of marijuana for any purposes, including recreational use.

Madison, who is also sponsoring an adult-use legalization bill along with Sen. Melissa Agard (D) in the opposite chamber, challenged the idea that the speaker’s restrictive medical cannabis legislation was introduced in good faith. If it had been, he said, Vos “would have brought it to the table” and allowed it to go to a vote.

“Vos has a legacy of, when he introduces something, he follows through,” Madison said. “What him not allowing the bill to come to the floor means is that he doesn’t have the votes, in my opinion.”

“They know [medical cannabis legalization is] a popular issue. They know it puts their members in a tough position to be able to align their votes with the will of the people,” he said. “This posturing is a part of the political theater. The work that gets done is often, from our perspective, Vos tries to keep the work that needs to be done off of the floor. He likes to have the decision made before he walks on the floor as it relates to anything that he wants to happen.”

“What our amendment presented to him was an obstacle that he wasn’t prepared to navigate. I think there’s a potential that my amendment could have passed both the Assembly and the Senate because it places folks in an earnest position,” he said. “What this also does is, if this had come to the floor, [Vos] wouldn’t be able to say that Democrats don’t want to negotiate.”

That has been a sentiment that the speaker previously expressed, arguing that Democrats only view medical marijuana as a stepping stone to adult-use legalization. But several Democrats, including Gov. Tony Evers (D), have contested that argument, insisting that they would be willing to enact a modest medical marijuana program, even if they’d prefer more comprehensive reform.

It was for that reason that Assembly Democrats strategically decided to file an amendment with a more conventional medical marijuana proposal, rather than forcing a vote on adult-use legalization like Agard did with a pair of amendments to budget bills last year.

“It was a discussion with my colleagues. And at the crux of it, we wanted to have a direct comparison to their very light medical legalization bill,” Madison said. “I’m always in favor of full legalization, but I think that by having a direct comparison of what an equitable medical legalization bill would look like puts us into the negotiation position for the conversation around medical cannabis, as opposed to opposing their very bad proposal, which, if that came to the floor, that’s what we’d be discussing.”

In the end, however, it appears that discussion won’t be happening in the legislature in the remaining days of the session. There’s a chance the unrelated bill on kratom regulations to which Madison sought to attach his amendment could be taken up on Tuesday, but the sponsor doubts the speaker will be willing to do that.

Marijuana Moment reached out to Vos’s office for comment, but a representative was not immediately available.

Agard, who has long championed legalization over her tenure, slammed Republicans for what she described as a “smoke and mirrors” medical marijuana proposal, arguing that the announcement that they wouldn’t move to advance it underscored how Vos and his GOP colleagues are “unserious about addressing this issue.”

“How many sessions do we need to witness the same hoax from Republicans indicating their interest in medical marijuana only to pull the rug out from those who desperately want this policy to be signed into law?” the senator wrote in an op-ed for Marijuana Moment.

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.

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The governor, meanwhile, 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.

The state Department of Revenue released a fiscal estimate of the economic impact of Agard’s legalization bill last 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 in 2022, 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 in December. Sponsors hoped 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 Philip Steffan.

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