The governor of Wisconsin’s newly announced proposal to legalize marijuana in the state is already getting significant pushback from leaders in the Republican-controlled legislature. But some members have signaled an interest in enacting more modest cannabis reforms such as decriminalization or allowing medical cannabis.
Gov. Tony Evers (D) said on Sunday that he will be including a full legalization plan in his 2021-23 budget request next week. It’s a step up from his 2019 proposal that called for legalizing medical marijuana and decriminalizing simple possession—which the GOP Assembly and Senate killed at the time.
But while the governor has evolved on the issue, Senate President Chris Kapenga (R) said on Wednesday that adult-use legalization is a non-starter with the GOP-controlled legislature.
“The legalization of recreational marijuana is not in the best interest of Wisconsinites,” Kapenga said in a press release on Wednesday. “There are serious health and societal issues that need to be understood, and Governor Evers shouldn’t sacrifice the safety of the people of Wisconsin—particularly our children—in pursuit of the mighty dollar.”
The Governor is adamant we follow science when it comes to COVID-19 but turns a blind eye when it comes to legalizing a drug that has no FDA approval—which all other medicines are subject to. What happened to the honorable goal of keeping the people of Wisconsin & our kids safe?
— Sen. Chris Kapenga (@SenatorKapenga) February 10, 2021
“The Governor is adamant we follow science when it comes to COVID-19 but turns a blind eye when it comes to legalizing a drug that has no FDA approval—which all other medicines are subject to,” he said. “What happened to the honorable goal of keeping the people of Wisconsin and our kids safe?”
GOP lawmakers might not be willing to budge on adult-use marijuana for now, but there are some who see room for compromise. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) has said, for example, that while he opposes recreational legalization or decriminalization, he is open to allowing medical cannabis—albeit not through the budget process.
And Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R) said recently that “if we start with medical marijuana inside a very regulatory framework, I think the citizens would be open to that.”
She plans to reintroduce a medical cannabis legalization bill this session and said she hopes that her colleagues will at least be willing to entertain a debate over the policy change.
“The biggest thing we are asking for this year is a hearing,” she told WJDT. “Let’s actually have one and hear experts in the field.”
While it wouldn’t be the comprehensive reform that Evers and advocates are pushing for, advancing medical cannabis legalization would represent a notable development, as Republican leaders stripped the proposal from the governor’s previous budget, as well as his plan to decriminalize marijuana possession.
Meanwhile, two GOP state lawmakers—Sen. Kathleen Bernier (R), who serves as vice chair of the majority caucus, and Rep. Shae Sortwell (R)—do see an opportunity to move decriminalization legislation this year and are reportedly circulating a draft bill to achieve the reform among their colleagues, according to CannaBadger.
The bill would make possession of up to ten grams of marijuana a civil penalty punishable by a $100 fine. It would also remove a reporting requirement for possession cases that could lead to felony conviction for repeat offenses.
Wisconsin legislators filed a bill last year to remove criminal penalties for possession of up 28 grams of marijuana, but it did not advance.
Still, decriminalization a far cry from what Evers will be proposing through his latest budget request. Under his cannabis reform plan, adults 21 and older would be allowed to possess up to two ounces of marijuana and cultivate up to six plants for personal use. It would also establish a medical marijuana program in the state, and it stipulates that registered patients would be exempt from a retail tax to purchase their medicine.
The governor said that adult-use legalization is estimated to generate more than $165 million in tax revenue annually starting in fiscal year 2023. About $80 million of that would be earmarked for a community reinvestment fund that would provide grants to low-income neighborhoods. Another $34 million would go toward supporting rural school districts.
Folks, we know the majority of Wisconsinites—nearly 60%—support legalizing marijuana. We also know legalizing marijuana would be good for our economy, help those suffering from chronic pain and create a more equitable state.
So this year, let's get it done.
— Governor Tony Evers (@GovEvers) February 8, 2021
Evers criticized the legislature for failing to act on the more incremental reforms at the beginning of the year, citing overwhelming public support for medical cannabis legalization.
But opposition has already mounted since the governor announced his latest plan. And those standing against the proposal include lawmakers in key leadership positions who will have jurisdiction over the budget.
For example, Sen. Howard Marklein (R), cochair of the Joint Finance Committee, said in a recent interview that “I don’t believe [legalization] has a chance.”
“I certainly don’t think that kind of a topic should be in as part of the budget, this session anyway,” he told Wisconsin Radio Network. He added that he believes marijuana is “a gateway drug.”
One outstanding question is where Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R) stands on any of the various marijuana proposals being floated this year. A spokesperson for the leader said earlier this week that he’d make those views clear on Tuesday, but it does not appear that he’s commented since then.
For his part, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes (D) has been cheering on the governor’s marijuana plan in a series of pun-filled tweets.
“Maybe I’m being blunt, but it’s high time we stop living in the failed past,” he wrote in one post. “Other states take advantage of Wisconsin weed tourists who leave the state for greener pastures. What was once a pipe dream is now long overdue.”
Maybe I’m being blunt, but it’s high time we stop living in the failed past.
Other states take advantage of Wisconsin weed tourists who leave the state for greener pastures. What was once a pipe dream is now long overdue. https://t.co/o6nZ0St3Zh
— Mandela Barnes (@TheOtherMandela) February 7, 2021
“We have to do this,” he said in another. “If Iowa legalizes before us, Wisconsin will be in a geographical weed bowl.”
We have to do this. If Iowa legalizes before us, Wisconsin will be in a geographical weed bowl.
— Mandela Barnes (@TheOtherMandela) February 7, 2021
Voters at the local level have been making their opinion clear on cannabis reform over the past few years. In three jurisdictions, they approved non-binding advisory questions in favor of marijuana legalization last year. That’s after Wisconsinites across the state overwhelmingly embraced cannabis reform by supporting similar measures during the 2018 midterm election.
In another sign of the times, city officials in the state’s capital, Madison, voted last month to remove most local penalties for marijuana possession and consumption, effectively allowing cannabis use by all adults 18 and older.
Meanwhile, supervisors in Milwaukee County are considering a proposal to lower the fine for low-level marijuana violations to just $1.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.