The governor of Wisconsin is asking lawmakers to give the people the right to put citizen initiatives on the ballot—and advocates are hopeful that the move could open the door to finally letting voters decide on marijuana legalization.
Gov. Tony Evers (D) signed an executive order last week to convene a special legislative session starting on October 4 for the purpose of passing a joint resolution that would start the process of amending the state Constitution to allow citizen initiatives and legislature-passed referendums on the ballot.
Evers stressed that he’s primarily taking this step now as an effort to protect reproductive rights, saying the reform would give voters a necessary tool to repeal antiquated state laws restricting abortion since the GOP-controlled legislature has yet to act since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
But the governor has also strongly advocated for cannabis legalization, and activists feel the constitutional amendment, if approved, could empower citizens to end marijuana prohibition on their own given the recalcitrance of the legislature on this issue as well.
The proposed joint resolution to “allow the direct input of Wisconsinites is in service of that which should be the driving principle for all Wisconsin officials that ‘the will of the people is the law of the land,'” the executive order says, adding that nearly half of the states in the country have that ballot right.
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,” it says.
Marijuana reform certainly fits the description, 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.
Again, Evers didn’t specifically say that the proposal is meant to advance marijuana reform, but he did acknowledge at a press conference on Wednesday that the resolution would not be limited to protecting reproductive rights, even if that’s the “most important” issue “right now.”
“It’s the same type of initiative that occurs in all those other states,” he said of the ballot proposal. “You think about all the items [that] the state polling shows that the vast majority of people support. Any one of those would eventually be fair game. This is the opportunity to live this out, the will of the people as the law of the land.”
Marijuana Moment reached out to the governor’s office for comment on the possibility of cannabis legalization through his proposed referendum, but a representative was not immediately available.
Wisconsin Democracy Campaign Executive Director Matthew Rothschild said in a post responding to the governor’s executive order that “it’s not just the issue of reproductive freedom where the will of the people of Wisconsin is being denied.” He said cannabis legalization is another example to that end.
“When We, the People, aren’t getting what we overwhelmingly want, there’s something seriously wrong with our democracy,” Rothschild wrote.
The resolution Evers is proposing would set policies on putting legislature-enacted referenda and citizen initiatives on the ballot, including provisions on signature requirements and other procedural rules.
It would amend the state Constitution to say that “legislative power, except for the initiative and referendum powers reserved to the people, shall be vested in a senate and assembly.”
In order to make a constitutional amendment, the resolution must be approved by the legislature in two consecutive sessions. Given that Republicans control both the Senate and Assembly, it’s not certain that the governor’s measure will succeed—but Evers pointed out that U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (R) has said that voters should have a direct say in policy issues.
“You never know. But when you have one of the leaders of the Republican party in the state of Wisconsin saying ‘let the people decide,’ we’ll see,” Evers said.
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.
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.
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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.