Following Gov. Tony Evers’ (D) announcement that he’ll be including a full marijuana legalization plan in his upcoming budget request, many in the GOP-controlled legislature are already speaking out.
Wisconsin’s Journey Toward Marijuana Legalization
Before Tony Evers took office in early 2019, there had already been three separate bills introduced to legalize cannabis in Wisconsin – to no avail. But the newly-elected governor didn’t waste time in making his goals crystal clear. While constructing the state budget proposal in 2019, Gov. Evers announced plans to include the decriminalization of marijuana possession and the legalization of medical marijuana in the rundown.
Despite the push, attempts at cannabis reform were stripped from the plan by Republican lawmakers, and the hopes of a new era in Wisconsin, sans prohibition, were dashed once again. In the following months, Gov. Evers continued pressuring state legislators to take action on the matter saying, “When more than 80 percent of our state supports medical marijuana…and elected officials can ignore those numbers without consequence, folks, something’s wrong,” at his 2020 State of the State address.
That pressure grew even stronger when shutdowns caused by COVID-19 ravaged local economies throughout 2020. According to figures released by New Frontier Data, many adult-use states – including Wisconsin’s neighbor Illinois – had marijuana sales shoot up by nearly 50% from March to April of 2020. Those sales figures remained high throughout lockdowns, resulting in record sales (and local tax revenue) for many legal states.
Those numbers showed one thing to Gov. Evers: he had to go BOLDER. On Sunday, February 7, the Wisconsin Governor unveiled a plan to fully legalize cannabis as part of his 2021-2023 state budget proposal. Speaking on the subject, he said, “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.”
The plan would legalize marijuana for adults over the age of 21, allowing Wisconsin residents to carry up to two ounces of cannabis and grow up to six plants for personal use. The office of the governor continued that the plan would, “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 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that products would face a 15% excise tax in wholesale and an additional 10% excise tax on retail sales – not to mention the state sales tax that already stands. Gov. Evers stated that the program could bring in over $165 million for the state beginning in 2023. However, Republican lawmakers are still standing at odds with the proposal.
GOP Lawmakers Shoot Down Recreational Marijuana — Open to Lesser Reforms
The Wednesday following Gov. Evers’ announcement, Senate President Chris Kapenga (R) showed staunch disapproval of the idea, saying, “The legalization of recreational marijuana is not in the best interest of Wisconsinites. There are serious health and societal issues that need to be understood, and Governor Evers shouldn’t sacrifice the safety of the people of Wisconsin—particularly our children—in pursuit of the mighty dollar,” Kapenga continued in the press release.
“The Governor is adamant we follow science when it comes to COVID-19 but turns a blind eye when it comes to legalizing a drug that has no FDA approval—which all other medicines are subject to. What happened to the honorable goal of keeping the people of Wisconsin and our kids safe?”
While the Senate President showed little leeway in his initial statement, there are other GOP lawmakers that are open to compromise. Rep. Shae Sortwell (R) and Senator Kathleen Bernier (R) have pushed for legislation that would decriminalize small amounts of cannabis. The bill clarifies that possession of up to ten grams of pot would lead to a civil penalty punishable by a $100 fine, and it would prevent repeat offenses from leading to a felony conviction.
A handful of Republican lawmakers – including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) – are willing to consider medical cannabis legalization. Sen. Mary Felzkowoski (R) is particularly fond of the idea, as she plans on reintroducing a medical marijuana legalization bill to her colleagues soon. She recently said that, “if we start with medical marijuana inside a very regulatory framework, I think the citizens would be open to that . . . The biggest thing we are asking for this year is a hearing. Let’s actually have one and hear experts in the field.”
While decriminalization and medical cannabis fall short of Gov. Evers’ grand plans, he’s confident that he’s acting with the support of his fellow Wisconsinites.
Wisconsinites Want Weed Legalization
Wisconsin residents have made it clear that the clock is ticking for prohibition. Supporters of cannabis law reform in the state are looking at a multitude of factors – alternative medical treatment, raising state revenue, rejuvenating impoverished areas. And according to the governor, that’s exactly where funds will go. Out of the projected $165 million, $80 million would be invested in low-income neighborhoods, and an additional $34 million would support rural school districts.
According to a recent poll by Marquette University Law School nearly 83% of Wisconsin voters stood in favor of medical marijuana legalization, and nearly 60% were in favor of full recreational use. That same support was shown in 2019 when Wisconsin residents across three counties voted in favor of marijuana law reform on non-binding advisory ballot questions.
Regardless if the state lawmakers act, officials at the local level are already moving to reevaluate cannabis laws. Last month, Madison, Wisconsin elected to remove most penalties for cannabis possession and consumption, and officials in Milwaukee are pushing to significantly lower fines for low-level marijuana violations.
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