Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) on Sunday unveiled a plan to legalize marijuana as part of his forthcoming budget proposal, a policy change he said reflects the will of voters and would bring the state hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue that could be used to fund schools and equity initiatives.
“Legalizing and taxing marijuana in Wisconsin—just like we do already with alcohol—ensures a controlled market and safe product are available for both recreational and medicinal users,” the governor said in a statement, “and can open the door for countless opportunities for us to reinvest in our communities and create a more equitable state.”
Evers first signaled in December that he was considering adding legalization to his 2021–2023 budget proposal despite Republican lawmakers’ steady rejections in recent years of more modest marijuana reforms.
Evers in 2019 tried to legalize medical marijuana and decriminalize small-scale cannabis possession in his first budget proposal as governor, but Republicans in the legislature stripped those provisions from the bill.
The latest proposal sets up yet another partisan fight.
My 2021-23 budget proposes regulating and taxing marijuana much like we do alcohol. States across the country have moved forward with legalization, and there's no reason Wisconsin should be left behind.
Read more about my budget proposal here⬇️ https://t.co/IAWBvvW6eR
— Governor Tony Evers (@GovEvers) February 8, 2021
The governor’s plan introduced Sunday would legalize cannabis for adults 21 years or older, allowing possession of up to two ounces of cannabis by Wisconsin residents (or up to a quarter-ounce by nonresidents) and home cultivation of up to six plants for personal use. The proposal would also legalize medical marijuana, which would not be subject to a retail tax.
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The program could bring in more than $165 million annually beginning in fiscal year 2023, Evers said. About half that money, $80 million, would flow to a new Community Reinvestment Fund, which would provide equity grants to state agencies to invest in underserved communities. Another $34 million would support so-called sparsity aid, supporting small, rural school districts.
In a press release, Evers’s office said the plan will “increase revenue, create jobs, and reduce criminal justice system costs, while providing a pathway for those suffering from chronic or debilitating pain and illness to utilize the medicine they require.”
The release also notes that 59 percent of state residents support adult-use cannabis legalization and 83 percent support legalizing medical marijuana, according to a 2019 poll. Only 12 percent of respondents opposed medical marijuana.
Products would be subject to 15 percent excise tax on wholesale marijuana sales and another 10 percent excise tax on retail sales, in addition to the state’s existing sales tax, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Sunday. Marijuana businesses with 20 or more employees would need to have labor agreements with unions.
Individuals with past convictions for nonviolent cannabis offenses could see sentences reduced or eliminated under the governor’s plan, the Journal Sentinel said.
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
In 2018, voters more than a dozen Wisconsin counties weighed in through advisory votes on marijuana reform, ranging from medical marijuana to adult-use legalization. Every single county where marijuana questions were on the ballot voted in favor of reform.
Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg (D) tweeted on Sunday that those ballot results “should give representatives a lot of direction and political cover to support medical marijuana.”
Those 2018 referenda results should give representatives a lot of direction and political cover to support medical marijuana. pic.twitter.com/9XMvCSVPtz
— Katie Rosenberg (@katierosenberg) February 7, 2021
But efforts to actually pass reform have so far fallen short. In addition to rejecting the governor’s past efforts at medical marijuana and decriminalization, Wisconsin legislators also failed to act on a bill introduced last year to remove criminal penalties for possession of up 28 grams of marijuana.
“Frankly, red and blue states across the country have moved forward with legalization,” Evers said Sunday, “and there is no reason Wisconsin should be left behind when we know it’s supported by a majority of Wisconsinites.”
One area where reform has found traction is the state capital, Madison, where city officials voted late last year to remove most local penalties for marijuana possession and consumption, effectively allowing cannabis use by all adults 18 and older.
The ACLU of Madison on Sunday applauded Evers’s plan, calling it an an important step forward.
“Handing someone a criminal record for simple possession creates a lifetime of collateral damage,” said Sean Wilson, a campaign manager for the group. “The punishment should fit the crime, and public opinion increasingly favors a new approach to marijuana and a more sensible drug policy. The War on Marijuana has needlessly ensnared hundreds of thousands of people in the criminal justice system, at tremendous human and financial cost.”
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 Wisconsin counties—Ozaukee, Manitowoc, Washington and Waukesha, showed among the country’s worst racial disparities in cannabis arrests.
We commend Evers’ proposed budget plan to legalize marijuana & reinvest $80 million into communities that have been targeted & harmed by the war on drugs.
It’s time to end the racially biased, wasteful war on marijuana in WI.
— ACLU of Wisconsin (@ACLUofWisconsin) February 7, 2021
Evers is set to formally introduce his coming budget plan on February 16, at which point lawmakers will be free to amend the proposal. That’s the stage at which Republicans during the last budget session nixed the governor’s medical marijuana and decriminalization proposals.
Republicans are widely expected to oppose the current plan as written, but lawmakers will have months after the proposal is introduced to make changes. There’s already a hint that that some of the governor’s plan might survive. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R), for example, has said that while he opposes recreational marijuana legalization, he supports allowing medical cannabis—albeit not through the budget process.
Evers, who beat incumbent Gov. Scott Walker (R) in the state’s 2018 gubernatorial election, may have marijuana itself to thank for his win—at least according to former President Donald Trump. In comments after Evers won the race, Trump blamed the decision on cannabis.
“The next time you run, please don’t put marijuana on the ballot at the same time you’re running,” Trump said in public comments directed at Walker. “You brought out like a million people that nobody ever knew were coming out.”