Wisconsin increasingly isolated as neighbors progress on cannabis policy
Wisconsin is lagging behind the times on cannabis policy reform. While neighboring Michigan and Illinois have legalized cannabis for adults’ use, and Minnesota has a medical cannabis program, Wisconsin remains stubbornly behind the times. It is one of only 19 states that still imposes jail on simple possession of cannabis, and one of only 13 that lacks a compassionate medical cannabis law.
Medical cannabis, decriminalization and legalization bills have been defeated year after year. The legislature adjourned its 2022 session without even granting a hearing on any of the bills during session, although there was a post-session hearing on medical cannabis in April. (However, with the session adjourned, the bill cannot move.)
Gov. Tony Evers (D) 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.
In 2021, Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R) made it clear neither legalization nor medical cannabis would make it through his Senate. He said, "We don’t have 17 votes in the caucus for medicinal purposes or recreational purposes."
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) has been more open personally, but said of the Assembly Republican caucus, "it’s clear that our caucus hasn’t reached a consensus."
The Assembly GOP caucus is drastically out of step with voters. In November 2018, around a million Wisconsin voters approved advisory questions on their ballots calling for more humane cannabis laws. 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.
Although Wisconsin doesn’t allow statewide citizen-initiated ballot measures, every state lawmaker will be on the ballot this year. Reach out to candidates in your district and ask them where they stand on medical cannabis, decriminalization, and/or legalization. Then, help elect a new legislature that listens to voters.
It’s important lawmakers 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 cannabis 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 individuals were 4.2 times as likely to be arrested for cannabis possession as white people in Wisconsin, despite similar use rates. This made the state the 14th worst in terms of racial disparities in cannabis 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 cannabis update
Wisconsin has become an anomaly when it comes to compassionate medical cannabis legislation. Thirty-seven other states, including deep red states like Utah, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and North and South Dakota, have enacted effective medical cannabis programs. But in Wisconsin, the only progress that has been made is a very limited law focused on a non-psychoactive component of cannabis, CBD.
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Today, the Wisconsin Legislature reconvenes for the year. Because Wisconsin lacks a citizen initiative process, the legislature alone is responsible for crafting laws in the Badger State. Outrageously, Wisconsin’s cannabis laws are among the most out-of-step with voters of any state in the country.