Wisconsin Republicans have unveiled a plan to legalize non-smokable medical marijuana through state-run dispensaries staffed by government-employed pharmacists, with a limited set of conditions that could qualify patients for the program.
At a series of press conferences across the state on Monday, GOP state lawmakers detailed the much-anticipated legislation, which would make Wisconsin the “first state to have state-run dispensaries,” operated by the Department of Health Services (DHS).
As expected, the proposal would create a restrictive system that limits patients to smokeless cannabis options such as oils and edibles. People with qualifying conditions would be eligible to receive a doctor’s recommendation and access the products, which would be sold at five dispensaries across the state.
“We’ve come up with a program I think is going to be very beneficial to a lot of Wisconsinites,” Rep. Jon Plumer (R) said, while acknowledging that the state-controlled dispensaries component is a key area “where our program is different” than other medical marijuana states.
The qualifying conditions include cancer, epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), glaucoma, severe chronic pain, muscle spasms, chronic nausea, multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, Alzheimer’s disease and terminal illness with less than one year life expectancy.
While the dispensaries would be state-run, growers and processors would be independently operated if they obtain a permit from the state. The pharmacists who dispense the cannabis to patients would be “state employees,” Plumer said.
“We think we have a good program put together. It’s going to be probably modified over the years as we learn about it—as we realize we have changes we should probably make,” he said. “But I think we’re at a really strong starting point here.”
According to a legislative analysis, the bill would create an Office of Medical Cannabis Regulation (OMCR) under DHS to regulate the program and manage a statewide patient and caregiver registry. The Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) would be responsible for overseeing the cultivation, processing and testing.
Only the OMCR would be allowed to sell medical cannabis products to patients, and it must set prices “only at a level sufficient to recoup product and operational costs.” Medical cannabis would be exempt from the state sales tax under the proposal. Dispensaries would also be prohibited from advertising their services.
The legislation specifically keeps in place laws that allow employers to prohibit cannabis use, even if it’s used lawfully under the medical marijuana program.
Rep. Tony Kurtz (R) said the proposal underscores how Republicans are “leading to have a great opportunity to introduce a much-needed program with medical cannabis with controls.”
He added that the medical cannabis law would “help a tremendous number of people in our state,” including “people that I personally know that will benefit from this very much-needed program.”
The text of the legislation hasn’t been introduced yet, but Plumer said that he expects it will go to committee “shortly,” as they’d like to pass it through the legislature “this spring.”
Plumer and Kurtz led one of several press briefings that Republicans held across the state on Monday to announce details of the medical cannabis plan, which has been in the works for months as leadership sought to reach consensus within the caucus.
At another event in Green Bay, Rep. Joel Kitchens (D) said “clearly there is medicinal value” to marijuana, and the legislation they’ve crafted would enact reform in “a very responsible way that alleviates some of those concerns about abuse of marijuana.”
Gov. Tony Evers (D), who supports more broadly legalizing recreational marijuana, said last week that he’d be inclined to sign the limited reform into law, as long as the bill didn’t contain “poison pills.” He said that while he still believes Wisconsin should adopt comprehensive legalization, this could be a “step in the right direction.”
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) has taken issue with that characterization, however, as he’s insisted that the Republican medical cannabis plan should not be viewed as a stepping stone to adult-use legalization, which he strongly opposes.
“One of the biggest fears that I have, and I saw it in one of the comments that Governor Evers said, is that it’s the first step toward recreational marijuana,” Vos told WISN 12 on Sunday. “That scares the bejesus out of most of the members of my caucus because we know the wrong thing for Wisconsin is to legalize recreational marijuana.”
“We have way too many drugs. We just went through a huge opioid crisis. The last thing that we need is marijuana shops on every street corner of every small town in Wisconsin, like we’re seeing in Michigan and Illinois,” he said. “They’re not good. So if [Evers] wants to sign a limited version, I’m happy to work with anybody who wants to do that. But if it’s just a precursor to get us toward recreational, it’s going to kill the bill and I hope that won’t happen.”
He added that the GOP proposed medical cannabis program would be “the most restrictive version in the entire country.”
Vos said on Monday that while he doesn’t consider cannabis a “panacea” or “magic cure for people who deal with awful conditions,” it does represent “another way for people to get treatment in a way that hopefully will be less addictive, more impactful and hopefully have less negative side effects than the constant and chronic use of opioids.”
Following the press briefings, a spokesperson for the governor told The Associated Press that Evers “looks forward to hearing from Wisconsinites and other stakeholders as the bill moves through the legislative process.”
It remains to be seen whether Democratic lawmakers who’ve pushed for broad legalization will go along with the incremental reform. But Vos said last month he’s “pretty confident” the legislature will approve the medical marijuana legislation, even if it’s “just Republican votes” that get it across the finish line.
In the new interview, he said supporters are “very close, if not there” to securing enough votes for passage.
Meanwhile, Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R), who has previously filed limited medical cannabis legislation, has said that Democratic-led efforts to push adult-use legalization have complicated Republicans’ work on modest reform.
Sen. Melissa Agard (D), who is sponsoring a recreational legalization bill again this session, has challenged that position, pointing out throughout the year that the GOP majority sets the agenda and could advance medical marijuana reform at any point but have yet to do so.
Agard, who recently stepped down as Senate minority leader to pursue a run for Dane County executive, said in a statement to Marijuana Moment on Monday that she is “thoroughly reviewing every provision” of the new GOP bill “because the devil truly is in the details.”
“As Wisconsin is increasingly an island of prohibition, putting forward an overly restrictive medical cannabis bill does not move our state in the right direction,” she said. “I will continue to tirelessly advocate for full legalization that will provide the public safety, freedom, opportunity, and economic benefit that Wisconsinites deserve.”
“This bill is picking winners and losers, and it doesn’t need to be this way,” Agard, who has separately urged the public to pressure their representatives to hold a hearing on her reform legislation, said.
Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R), meanwhile, said last month there’s “potentially” a path to pass a medical marijuana bill in the 2024 session—but it’d have to be strictly limited.
He told the AP on Monday that the legislation that his colleagues in the Assembly unveiled must be “thoroughly vetted before the Senate decides how to proceed.”
Senate Minority Leader Dianne Hesselbein (D) expressed concern about the restrictiveness of the proposal but described it as a “small step in the right direction.”
Evers, meanwhile, recently said that the GOP legislature’s inaction over recent years has meant Wisconsin “is losing out to our neighboring states” that have enacted the reform.
“It’s high time we legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana in Wisconsin much like we do with alcohol,” said Evers, who granted another round of pardons, including dozens issued for people with prior marijuana convictions, in November.
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The state Department of Revenue released a fiscal estimate of the economic impact of Agard’s legalization bill in November, projecting that the reform would generate nearly $170 million annually in tax revenue.
Also, a legislative analysis requested by the minority leader estimated that Wisconsin residents spent more than $121 million on cannabis in Illinois alone last year, contributing $36 million in tax revenue to the neighboring state.
Despite all that, the conservative legislature has long resisted even incremental reform—stripping marijuana proposals from the governor’s budget requests, for example.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of Wisconsin lawmakers formally introduced a measure to decriminalize marijuana possession last month. Sponsors hope the limited, noncommercial reform will win enough support to clear the state’s GOP-controlled legislature and become law in parallel with the separate medical cannabis bill.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.