The newly reelected governor of Wisconsin is reaffirming his commitment to legalizing marijuana in the state, pledging to again include the reform in his budget proposal that he’ll be submitting early next year.
One day after voters in multiple cities and counties across Wisconsin approved non-binding advisory questions on their local ballots in favor of legalizing cannabis, Gov. Tony Evers (D) discussed the issue at a press conference.
Asked about his forthcoming budget proposal for 2023-2025, Evers said it will be one that “includes legalizing marijuana, and [lawmakers will] have a chance to talk about that and see if that’s something we want to do.”
“At some point in time, the will of the people will become the law of the land,” Evers said on Wednesday. “I sure the hell hope it happens within the next four years because we just can’t, as a state, continue to say, ‘well, 80 percent of the people want X’ and we try to do X and then nothing happens.”
“I just think that’s an irresponsible way to operate a state,” Evers said. We’re not giving up on any of those issues. The will of the people is the law of the land.”
The governor included 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.
Democrats would have needed to flip numerous seats in the Assembly and Senate in order to take the majority and position themselves to advance cannabis reform. But while Republicans didn’t take enough seats to claim a veto-proof supermajority in the Assembly in this week’s elections, they retained their majorities in both chambers.
There’s currently no sign that GOP members might be more amenable to helping advance the governor’s budget. When he included adult-use and medical legalization in his proposal in 2021, Republicans ultimately stripped it out. Democrats tried to add the provisions back through an amendment, but Republicans blocked the move.
Ahead of the 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.
But 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 this 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.
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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 in February vetoed a GOP-led bill that would have significantly ramped up criminal penalties for people who use butane or similar fuels to extract marijuana.
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 hundreds of pardons during his years in office, primarily to people convicted of non-violent marijuana or other drug offenses.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.