Wisconsin voters in three counties and five municipalities across the state made their voices heard on marijuana legalization on Tuesday through non-binding advisory questions on their local ballots.
A total of nine local reform measures qualified for the ballot across the right jurisdictions this cycle, and every one was approved by a wide margin.
Gov. Tony Evers (D), who was reelected on Tuesday, is pushing lawmakers to pass legislation to allow citizens to put policy reform measures on the statewide ballot, but currently there’s no means of doing that, so activists have focused their efforts on individual localities in the meantime.
Across several past election cycles, advocates have successfully placed cannabis advisory questions on local Wisconsin ballots. This year was no different.
Here’s the text of the local ballot questions that were before voters this year:
APPROVED—Dane County: “Should marijuana be legalized, taxed, and regulated in the same manner as alcohol for adults 21 years of age or older?”
APPROVED—Dane County: “Should all records of previous convictions for marijuana possession in small amounts in the State of Wisconsin be expunged?”
APPROVED—Eau Claire County: “Should cannabis be legalized for adult use by Wisconsin residents at least 21 years of age, and in addition, be taxed and regulated in a manner similar to alcohol possession and use?”
APPROVED—Milwaukee County: “Do you favor allowing adults 21 years of age and older to engage in the personal use of marijuana, while also regulating commercial marijuana-related activities, and imposing a tax on the sale of marijuana?”
APPROVED—Appleton: “Should marijuana be legalized for use by those 21 and over, taxed, and regulated like alcohol in the State of Wisconsin?”
APPROVED—Kenosha: “Should marijuana be legalized for adult use, taxed, and regulated like alcohol?”
APPROVED—Racine: “Should marijuana be legalized for adult-use, taxed, and regulated like alcohol?”
APPROVED—Stevens Point: “Should marijuana be legalized for adult-use, taxed, and regulated like alcohol in the State of Wisconsin?”
APPROVED—Superior: “Should marijuana be legalized for adults over the age of 21, taxed, and regulated like alcohol?”
In Dane County, voters previously approved a series of medical and adult-use legalization questions in 2010, 2014 and 2018 with support ranging from 64.5 percent to 76.4 percent.
In addition to being polled about legalization again this Election Day, Dane County voters also saw a second measure that asked whether people previously convicted for simple cannabis possession should have those records expunged. That was also approved.
Milwaukee County, the largest county by population in the state, also approved a prior legalization advisory question in 2018.
The local votes are largely meant to serve a messaging purpose, providing lawmakers with a clear policy temperature-check among their constituents. But those that were approved will not change any laws by themselves.
Evers recently told college students that he felt “it’s time” for the state to legalize marijuana, and he encouraged them to make their votes count in the midterm election to see to that goal.
Voting could play a central role in the fight to legalize cannabis in later elections if the legislature approves a resolution he’s now pushing for to allow citizens to put initiatives on the ballot.
The governor can’t unilaterally enact legalization, but he suggested that he would continue to push the lawmakers to pass reform legislation if he’s reelected. The current Republican leadership in the conservative legislature might not be on board, he said, but the governor pointed out that some GOP members do “believe it’s time to legalize marijuana.”
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,” Evers’s executive order that called lawmakers into a special session to consider the initiative idea says.
Marijuana reform certainly fits the bill, as lawmakers have consistently declined to enact legalization despite widespread public support.
For example, a poll released in August 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.
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.
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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.
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.
Meanwhile, voters in several states decided on statewide marijuana legalization ballot initiatives on Tuesday.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.