Wisconsin increasingly isolated as neighbors progress on marijuana policy
Last update: May 22, 2020
Wisconsin is lagging behind the times on marijuana policy reform. While neighboring Michigan and Illinois have legalized marijuana for adults’ use, and Minnesota has a medical cannabis program, Wisconsin remains stubbornly behind the times. It is one of only 23 states that still imposes jail on simple possession of cannabis, and one of only 17 that lacks a compassionate medical cannabis law.
Gov. Tony Evers would like to lead the state to a more sensible policy. In 2018, his first-ever proposed budget as governor included removing all penalties from cannabis possession, expungement, and a comprehensive medical cannabis program. Unfortunately, the Joint Finance Committee removed the medical cannabis provisions from the proposed budget — with every Republican member voting to scrap the compassionate program.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R) is outright opposed to medical cannabis, and while Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) said he is “open to medical marijuana when it is prescribed by a doctor,” he favors a very restrictive version. The legislature’s 2020 legislative session has largely been derailed due to the coronavirus, further dimming the prospects for reform this year.
More than half of Wisconsin’s population saw cannabis-related measures on their ballots in 2018, and every single one of the measures passed. Medical cannabis questions received between 67% and 89% in the 11 counties and two cities where they appeared. Adult-use questions garnered between 60% and 76% of the vote.
While lawmakers are unlikely to take up reform in 2020, in light of the derailed legislative session, it’s important that they hear their constituents care about humane, sensible cannabis policies. Write your lawmakers on one of these issues:
In early 2020, the ACLU released an updated national report on unequal marijuana enforcement nationwide and state-by-state. Its A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reformfound that in 2018, black people were 4.2 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as white people in Wisconsin, despite similar use rates. This made the state the 14th worst in terms of racial disparities in marijuana enforcement.
While legalization does not eliminate unequal enforcement, it dramatically reduces the total number of arrests. Five of the seven states with the lowest disparities were states with legalization laws.
Medical marijuana update
Wisconsin has become an anomaly when it comes to compassionate medical cannabis legislation. Thirty-three other states, including deep red states like Utah, North Dakota, and Arkansas, have enacted effective medical marijuana programs. But in Wisconsin, the only progress that has been made is a very limited law focused on a non-psychoactive component of marijuana, CBD.
On April 17, 2017, Gov. Scott Walker signed Act 4, which expanded the state’s previous limited medical cannabis law, Lydia’s law, enacted in 2014. The original law allowed patients with documentation of a seizure disorder to possess CBD treatments, but it did not legalize the production of CBD products in the state. Act 4 expanded the program to protect all patients who possess CBD and have a letter from their physician. Unfortunately, it remained illegal to produce or distribute CBD products. Sen. Chris Larson and Rep. Jimmy P. Anderson introduced legislation that would have allowed state-licensed businesses to produce and dispense CBD treatment products, but it did not advance.
In late 2017, the state enacted a pilot program to license industrial hemp production, which seemed to provide a potential means of access. However, in April 2018, Attorney General Brad Schimel issued a memo saying licensed hemp producers could not extract and sell CBD oils from the plants. While he rescinded the memo in May 2018, some uncertainty remains and sales have not begun.