The governor of Wisconsin met with college students on Tuesday, urging supporters to get engaged and vote in the upcoming election, in part to ensure that the state advances marijuana legalization.
Gov. Tony Evers (D) delivered remarks and held a roundtable discussion at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, telling students that “it’s time” to enact the reform—but it’s only achievable if young people make their voices heard at the ballot in November.
And while Evers was focused on the election that’s coming up in about six weeks, voting could also play a central role in the fight to legalize marijuana in later elections if the legislature approves a resolution he’s now pushing for to allow citizens to put initiatives on the ballot.
Speaking with students, the governor also joked about how Illinois’s governor has teased him about generating tax revenue from Wisconsin residents who cross the border to buy marijuana. It’s a point of economic rivalry that the governor has brought up on several occasions since the neighboring state enacted legalization.
“We talk about this often, because he’s really glad that we have not legalized marijuana, because the taxes that are made in Illinois from legal sales of marijuana helps them out a hell of a lot,” Evers said. “Not that any of you have gone to Illinois to buy marijuana, but I bet you maybe one of you has.”
“I am really tired” of prohibition, the governor said, adding that while he’s used his executive authority to grant pardons to people who’ve been convicted of cannabis and completed their sentences, the state needs to move past criminalization altogether.
“The importance of all this is that we have to make sure that the use of marijuana is not something that gets you into the criminal justice system. So we need to legalize it,” he said.
Evers can’t unilaterally enact legalization, but he suggested that he would continue to push the lawmakers to pass reform legislation if he’s reelected. The current Republican leadership in the conservative legislature might not be on board, he said, but the governor pointed out that some GOP members do “believe it’s time to legalize marijuana.”
“Everybody around us has [legalized]. It’s likely time that we can finally do that here in the state of Wisconsin,” he said at a roundtable with students.
Asked whether legalization would be accompanied by retroactive relief for people with prior cannabis convictions, Evers said that’s an important policy and the administration “certainly would look at that.”
“If it’s decriminalized, obviously people that have that record, we might be able to expunge it,” he said. However, he pointed out that expungements might be complicated for those who have cannabis and unrelated convictions on their records.
Beyond the criminal justice aspects of marijuana reform, Evers emphasized to students that implementing a regulated adult-use market for cannabis would create an important revenue stream for the state.
“The state of Wisconsin is passing up on the revenue, and [in] Illinois, the governor told me that those municipalities that have a dispensary, they’ve been able to not double but triple their revenue for their communities,” he said. “Think about the good things that can happen with that additional revenue. So for all sorts of reasons—we are one of the few states that has not done this. It’s time to do this.”
Evers is also calling on the legislature to pass a joint resolution during a special session he convened that would let citizens put initiatives on the ballot. And while he focused on the need for that reform to protect reproductive rights, advocates say it could also open the door to cannabis legalization.
There are “countless instances regarding pressing issues of statewide importance to Wisconsin” where the legislature has “repeatedly rejected or altogether refused to consider policies that have broad and bipartisan public support of the people of the state,” Evers’s executive order says.
Marijuana reform certainly fits the bill, as lawmakers have consistently declined to enact legalization despite widespread public support.
For example, a poll released last month 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.
While there’s currently no statewide citizen initiative process for ballot in Wisconsin, activists have successfully put non-binding legalization advisory questions before voters. And at least a half dozen other cities will weigh in on the issue this year.
Some state lawmakers have 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.
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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.
Other GOP members have filed bills to more modestly decriminalize marijuana possession in the state, but none of those proposals advanced during last year’s session.
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.
Evers tried to legalize recreational and medical marijuana through his proposed state budget last year, but a GOP-led legislative committee stripped the cannabis language from the legislation. Democrats tried to add the provisions back through an amendment, but Republicans blocked the move.
The governor in February also 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 Mike Latimer.