The Republican sponsor of a medical marijuana legalization bill in Wisconsin says a push by her Democratic colleague to legalize cannabis more broadly for recreational use is hampering efforts to convince other GOP members to pass the incremental reform focused on patient access.
Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R), a cancer survivor who supports a more limited medical marijuana system in the state, was speaking to PBS Wisconsin as part of a story on residents traveling to nearby Michigan to buy legal cannabis. Asked about the possibility of ending prohibition in her state, Felzkowski said that comprehensive changes may still be a ways off as she works to build support among fellow Republicans for her medical-focused reform.
She said a competing bill, a measure from Sen. Melissa Agard (D) that would legalize marijuana for both medical and adult use, isn’t helping.
“Melissa is very much in favor of this, and she can do, you know, whatever,” Felzkowski said. “But it does make it harder in our caucus, and I think a lot of our caucus members are looking at this going, you know, ‘We don’t want to be Illinois. We don’t want to be Minnesota.'”
In comments to Marijuana Moment on Thursday, Agard shot back that it’s the GOP legislative majority’s position—not her own—that’s holding back reform.
“Republicans have a near supermajority in both houses of the Wisconsin State Legislature. They are the only people standing in the way of cannabis reform—whether that be for medicinal purposes only or for full recreational use,” she said, adding that nearly 7 in 10 Wisconsin voters support legalizing cannabis for adult use. “Wisconsin Republicans are obstructing that.”
As for Felzkowski’s medical marijuana proposal, the Republican said support on her side of the aisle is growing. “For the last three sessions, I’ve been working on a bill around medical marijuana, and it’s slowly gaining,” she said. “Caucuses are very much more open to it.”
“I’m trying to help patients,” she continued. “I know people who have had very debilitating medical conditions, our veterans with PTSD, M.S., and I have a firsthand knowledge of what opioids do to you as a side effect.”
Felzkowski and Agard both spoke about the prospects of cannabis reform during a webinar hosted by the Wisconsin Policy Forum in April. Felzkowski said at the time that she’s personally “very, very focused on getting medical marijuana across the finish line the session.”
But she told Marijuana Moment that there would be a need to “compromise” on the legislation, which would likely prohibit smoking cannabis and limit the conditions that would make people eligible for medical marijuana.
The GOP-controlled legislature in May voted again to strip cannabis reform language from Gov. Tony Evers’s (D) budget request, which included measures on legalizing, taxing and regulating cannabis in the state.
As part of the budget request, Evers’s office estimated that the state would generate $44.4 million in “segregated tax revenue” from legal cannabis, as well as a $10.2 million increase in state general fund tax revenue, in fiscal year 2025 if the reform is enacted.
The governor also included adult-use and medical marijuana legalization in his 2021 budget, as well as decriminalization and medical cannabis in his 2019 proposal, but the conservative legislature has consistently blocked the reform.
While Republican leadership said earlier this year that negotiations over medical cannabis reform would be compromised if Evers moved forward with pushing for recreational legalization in his budget, the GOP caucus has privately met to discuss advancing medical marijuana legislation.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) didn’t provide details about the in-the-works proposals when he disclosed the meetings to the public, but he said that the goal is to draft something with bipartisan appeal that could be enacted later this year.
Top Democrats—including Agard—were skeptical of the plan.
“We’ve seen this story before—but actions speak louder than words,” she said at the time. “Session after session, the Speaker has come forward with empty promises but no tangible steps toward any form of legal cannabis Wisconsin.”
Wisconsin lawmakers are under pressure to provide some kind of regulated access to cannabis given the rapid regional policy shifts.
A report published in February found that 50 percent of Wisconsinites 21 and older live within 75 minutes of an out-of-state cannabis retailer, such as in Illinois or Michigan. That percentage stands to increase as legal stores open in neighboring Minnesota.
Wisconsin residents purchased more than $121 million worth of marijuana from legal retailers in neighboring Illinois in 2022, contributing about $36 million in tax revenue to the state, according to a recent legislative analysis requested by Agard.
Vos, the Assembly speaker, has said that trying to enact adult-use legalization through the budget could “poison the well” in the legislature, jeopardizing talks on medical cannabis. But the leader of the Senate has expressed that he thinks the more modest policy is feasible.
“Our caucus is getting pretty close on medical marijuana,” Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R) said in January. “A lot of our members, who are maybe at a point where they can vote for it now, they just want to make sure it’s regulated well.”
Evers, the governor, said that he was encouraged by the Senate leader’s remarks about nearing consensus on medical marijuana, and he’s prepared to sign such legislation as long as it’s not “flawed” by including too many restrictions.
Evers didn’t bring up his legalization proposal in his budget speech this year, but he did stress in his inaugural address that the state needs to have a “meaningful conversation about treating marijuana much like we do alcohol.”
Former 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.
Ahead of the November 2022 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 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.
Meanwhile, 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.
Republicans filed a limited medical cannabis bill last 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 have 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 face a felony charge punishable by a maximum $10,000 fine and up to three and a half years in prison.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.