Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D), whose proposed state budget includes provisions to legalize both medical and adult-use marijuana, says he’s sick of seeing tax revenue from cannabis sales go to neighboring states that have already legalized.
“Frankly I’m kind of tired of talking to the governor from Illinois,” he said in a video posted to Twitter on Wednesday. “Whenever I get with him, he thanks me for having Wisconsinites cross the border to buy marijuana.”
Later in the day, Evers held a virtual town hall-style meeting where he and other members of the administration explained the legalization proposals and other elements of the budget plan, took public comments and urged constituents to pressure the Republican-controlled legislature to stop blocking cannabis reform.
Nearly 300 people attended the evening event, which featured comments from the governor, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes (D) and representatives of some state agencies, including the Department of Corrections.
A Twitter follower asked: "When will we hear about marijuana reform?"
— Governor Tony Evers (@GovEvers) April 14, 2021
Evers noted that among voters, members of both parties support the policy change even if that isn’t being translated into legislative action by lawmakers in the state’s GOP-led Senate and Assembly.
“In one of the rooms I work in at the Capitol, on the ceiling it says: ‘The will of the people is the law of the land,’” Evers said, “and I take that seriously. When people are passing referenda to say, ‘We believe that we should have recreational marijuana and/or medicinal marijuana,’ that’s what we should do as legislators and as leaders in the executive branch.”
At the local level, Wisconsin voters in three jurisdictions last year approved non-binding advisory questions in favor of marijuana legalization. That’s after Wisconsinites overwhelmingly embraced cannabis reform by supporting more than a dozen similar measures across the state during the 2018 election. Late last year, city officials in the state’s capital, Madison, voted to remove most local penalties for cannabis possession and consumption, effectively allowing use by adults 18 and older.
Evers said his office estimates that legalizing and taxing cannabis statewide could bring Wisconsin more than $165 million annually starting in 2022, an amount that would likely increase as the market matures.
Early last year, when Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) gave his State of the State address, he quipped that the state’s legal cannabis program would attract buyers from nearby states. Legalization, which Pritzker signed into law in 2019, “gives us a chance to collect tax revenue from the residents of Wisconsin, Missouri, Iowa and Indiana,” he said.
Legal cannabis sales in Illinois, one of only a few U.S. states to have legalized the drug through its legislature, made the state more than $200 million last year, and so far this year consumers are on track to far exceed that mark. Average daily sales surpassed $3.5 million last month—and the state now takes in more tax revenue from cannabis sales than from alcohol.
Evers, in the video he posted to Twitter, said that because lawmakers in his state are refusing to end prohibition, “the sales tax goes to them [in Illinois], instead of us.”
Our #BadgerBounceback proposal also modifies criminal penalties for marijuana-related crimes, and creates an opportunity for repealing and reducing sentences of those previously convicted of nonviolent minor marijuana-related crimes.
— Governor Tony Evers (@GovEvers) April 14, 2021
Republicans in Wisconsin’s legislature are broadly opposed to legalization, and some have criticized the governor’s proposals as grandstanding. House Speaker Robin Vos (R) said the marijuana reform component of the budget request is an example of Evers demonstrating that he is “not serious about governing, he’s serious about politics.” Senate President Chris Kapenga (R) recently called adult-use legalization a nonstarter and said it’s “not in the best interest of Wisconsinites.”
During a section of Wednesday evening’s town hall meeting, participants split up into small breakout groups, and members of the administration took feedback on the plan and answered questions from the public. In one group, two separate commenters said they supported legalization but felt the provisions would be rejected by state’s Republican-controlled legislature.
“If we’re going to have a meaningful conversation, we need to address and recognize political realities that are going on,” said one person, “which is that a lot of the things that are proposed in this budget are not going to get through the legislature.”
Another commenter, who said he had reached out to his state representatives as well as local sheriffs in Wisconsin, asked what the governor’s plan is if lawmakers remove the legalization proposal from the budget. “The GOP is taking what law enforcement leaders tell them, and none of them are going to support this,” he said. “It’s not going to pass, so what is going to happen next?”
“I am certainly not an eternal optimist,” replied Maggie Gau, Evers’s chief of staff. “If they strip it out, which they probably will,” Gau added, the governor’s office hopes to continue to expand on recent local pushes to decriminalize cannabis.
“We see communities across the state are taking the steps to decriminalize locally,” she said. “Continuing to build on that momentum, as well, I think is another place where we can make some headway.”
Gau noted that some Republicans have expressed support for medical marijuana, saying the governor’s office plans to “really lean in on the legislature in terms of what we can do on medical” if the provision is stripped from Evers’s budget proposal.
Zach Madden, legislative affairs director for the governor, said there’s “a lot of chatter about the possibility to maybe get medical marijuana done,” adding that “there are still going to be folks who are very fired up and continuing to talk about recreational marijuana in the Capitol moving forward, as well.”
Evers urged all the attendees to ask lawmakers to support the proposal.
“We need your help,” he said, noting that his budget plan will soon be taken by the Joint Committee on Finance. “We need you to contact your local representatives and let them know why you support this budget, and help us get this budget over the finish line.”
Evers tried to legalize medical marijuana and decriminalize small-scale cannabis possession in his first budget proposal as governor, in 2019, but Republicans in the legislature stripped those provisions from the bill.
His current proposal would allow adults 21 and older, or qualifying patients, to purchase, possess and consume cannabis. Residents could buy and possess up to two ounces of marijuana, while out-of-state visitors could have up to one quarter-ounce. Adults could grow up to six plants for personal use.
The governor’s plan calls for a 15 percent wholesale excise tax on cannabis, in addition to a 10 percent retail excise tax on marijuana sales. Medical cannabis sales would not be subject to the sales tax.
Sixty percent of those funds would go to a new “community reinvestment fund” and the rest would be deposited in the state’s general fund.
Of the nearly $80 million of that revenue that’s expected to be set aside for community reinvestment, Evers proposed using $10 million for grants “to promote diversity and advance equity and inclusion,” $10 million for community health worker grants, $10 million for “equity action plan grants,” $5 million to support businesses in underserved communities and about $35 million in school sparsity grants.
Unlike some legalization laws in other states, the plan does not appear to set aside any licenses or provide extra scoring points for businesses run by people from communities most impacted by the war on drugs.
“Our budget legalizes marijuana and also creates a pathway for people who’ve been previously convicted of marijuana-related offenses to repeal or reduce their sentences, which is how we work to promote equity, and it also creates a community reinvestment fund to invest those dollars from legalization into equity grants,” Barnes, the lieutenant governor, said at Wednesday’s event.
“We know that we need systemic change in Wisconsin, we’ve needed it for a few decades now,” he continued, noting that the state’s criminal justice approach “has disproportionately impacted communities of color, particularly Black and Indigenous communities in Wisconsin.”
Black people in Wisconsin were nearly 4.2 times more likely than white people for simple marijuana possession, according to a 2020 ACLU report. Four counties—Ozaukee, Manitowoc, Washington and Waukesha, showed among the country’s worst racial disparities in cannabis arrests.
“When will this happen?” the governor said of legalization on Twitter Wednesday. “When your legislators agree with me on this issue. So feel free to contact them. I was just talking to a legislator yesterday, a Republican who indicated that he believes that legalizing recreational marijuana is the right thing to do. It’s not just a Democrat thing. It’s a thing that people of Wisconsin have said they want.”
Despite Republican leaders’ opposition to legalizing marijuana outright or to including any cannabis reforms in the budget, Vos and others have expressed openness to considering medical cannabis as a standalone matter. And other GOP lawmakers have filed bills to decriminalize marijuana possession. But none of those ideas have been given hearings or votes so far this session.
Photo by Sam Doucette on Unsplash