MADISON – Wisconsin Democrats are pushing again to legalize marijuana, this time making their case just over the border at an Illinois dispensary that attracts customers from the Badger State.
Sen. Melissa Agard, a Democrat from Madison, is proposing for the fifth time to allow Wisconsin residents age 21 and older to possess up to two ounces of marijuana and six plants. The bill also would create a medical marijuana registry and includes a path for medical users to buy marijuana without paying retail taxes.
“We’re not introducing a new vice into the state of Wisconsin. What we’re trying to do with this legislation is making a safer, more regulated industry,” Agard said in an interview.
The proposals have been blocked repeatedly by Republicans including in the latest state budget-writing process.
It’s time to listen to the public, lawmakers say
Although marijuana isn’t legal in Wisconsin, that doesn’t mean there isn’t demand for cannabis. Some Wisconsinites travel over state borders to visit dispensaries, including one in South Beloit that Agard visited Tuesday to announce the legislation.
“People can, as I am right now, drive for 45 minutes from Madison across the border and legally purchase, walk into a dispensary and have access to cannabis. Those are hard-earned tax dollars that are leaving our state and going into Illinois,” Agard said.
Two of Wisconsin’s neighbors — Illinois and Michigan — have legalized marijuana for recreational and medical use. Minnesota also has a medical marijuana program.
Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, has said that the availability of marijuana in other states creates issues for law enforcement but said he didn’t think “from a policy standpoint it puts a whole lot of pressure on us.”
Democrats have described Wisconsin as an “island of prohibition” despite public support in the state. In the most recent Marquette Law School poll that asked about views on marijuana, 83% of voters supported medical marijuana and 59% were in favor of full legalization.
“The people of Rock County, just minutes across the border there, have shown strong support for legalizing cannabis. In a November 2018 referendum, nearly 70% of Rock County residents voted in favor of legalizing and regulating cannabis,” said Rep. Mark Spreitzer, a Democrat from Beloit.
Democrats also believe the proposal would boost the agricultural economy and reduce racial disparities in arrests for marijuana possession.
The plan would devote 60% of the tax revenue generated by sales toward underserved communities and rural school districts and create a process for those convicted in the past to petition a court to dismiss the conviction, expunge the record or designate it as a lesser crime.
Legislation faces an uphill battle despite Democratic support
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers made it clear he supported marijuana legalization by including a plan to regulate and tax it in a way similar to alcohol in his state budget proposal.
But Republicans snuffed out the idea early on in the budget process.
Democrats in the Senate attempted to add the measure back to the budget during debate with an amendment, but it was voted down.
All 12 Democrats voted in support of the amendment, sending a signal that they aligned with Evers’ stance weeks after their leader walked back comments that the caucus did not favor full legalization.
The cosponsors on Agard’s bill have grown from seven in 2013 to 24 in 2019. She thinks even more lawmakers will sign onto her plan this time around.
Getting Democrats on board is not the main obstacle for supporters of marijuana legalization. While some Republicans in the legislature support the idea of medical marijuana, Republican leaders have said they do not have the votes for medical or full legalization.
“We don’t have support from the caucus. That’s pretty clear, that we don’t have 17 votes in the caucus for medicinal purposes or recreational purposes (to) legalize it,” LeMahieu said at a WisPolitics.com event in spring.
Some Republicans have expressed concerns that marijuana is not yet legal at the federal level. Others view the drug as too dangerous.
Agard said she hopes that there will be a “robust debate” during this legislative session and asked legislators to look at the bill “earnestly and in detail.”
“I asked them to come and talk to me about what it is that they’re so afraid of. We can address it,” Agard said.