Wisconsin may soon join the 36 states that have legalized medical marijuana, as Republican lawmakers plan to introduce a bill in January that would create a state-run program for non-smokable forms of cannabis. The proposal, which has been in the works for years, is expected to face opposition from some Democrats who favor full legalization and some conservatives who oppose any form of marijuana use.
State-Run Dispensaries and Pharmacies
The bill, which has not been released to the public yet, is modeled after the medical marijuana law that was in place in Minnesota before it moved to full legalization in 2023. According to Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who is leading the effort, the bill would allow patients with certain qualifying conditions to obtain non-smokable forms of cannabis, such as oils, pills, or edibles, from state-run dispensaries and pharmacies. The dispensaries and pharmacies would be staffed by state employees, and the cannabis would be grown and processed by licensed producers.
“It is not going to be widespread,” Vos said in an interview on Wednesday. “We are not going to have dispensaries on every corner in every city.”
Vos said that the bill has the support of most Assembly Republicans, but he did not guarantee that it would pass the Senate or be signed by Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat who has called for full legalization of marijuana for both medical and recreational purposes. Vos said he hoped to have a wider discussion with the Senate and the governor before introducing the bill in January.
Qualifying Conditions and Regulations
The bill would limit the access to medical marijuana to patients with certain debilitating or terminal illnesses, such as cancer, epilepsy, chronic pain, PTSD, or ALS. The patients would need a recommendation from a physician and a registry card from the state Department of Health Services. The bill would also establish a Medical Marijuana Advisory Board, composed of doctors, pharmacists, patients, and law enforcement officials, to oversee the program and recommend any changes or additions to the list of qualifying conditions.
The bill would also impose strict regulations on the production, distribution, and consumption of medical marijuana, such as testing, labeling, packaging, and tracking requirements. The bill would prohibit smoking, vaping, or growing marijuana at home, and would impose penalties for any violations of the law.
Mixed Reactions from Democrats and Advocates
The bill has received mixed reactions from Democrats and marijuana advocates, who have been pushing for full legalization of marijuana in Wisconsin for years. Some have welcomed the bill as a step in the right direction, while others have criticized it as too restrictive, too late, or too political.
State Senator Melissa Agard, a Democrat who has been a vocal advocate for full legalization, said she could support a more limited medical marijuana program, but she remained skeptical about the Republican bill.
“I remain skeptical as to whether or not this is it,” Agard said on Thursday. “I have offered to work with them on this issue for years and have been rejected.”
Agard said that the Republican bill does not address the racial disparities, social injustices, and economic opportunities that full legalization would bring. She also said that the bill does not reflect the will of the majority of Wisconsin voters, who have shown strong support for legalization in various polls and referendums.
Assembly Minority Leader Greta Neubauer, another Democrat who supports full legalization, said that Democrats were open to discussing the Republican bill, but they hoped that it would be a serious proposal that would address the needs of the patients and the harms of prohibition.
“We hope that it’s a serious proposal from our colleagues that addresses the past harms that have been caused by the criminalization of marijuana and that really allows access for the people who need it,” Neubauer said on Thursday.
On the other hand, some marijuana advocates have praised the bill as a positive development that would bring relief to thousands of patients who suffer from chronic or terminal conditions. They have urged the lawmakers to pass the bill as soon as possible and to expand it in the future.
“We are encouraged by this proposal and we hope that it will be passed quickly and implemented effectively,” said Gary Storck, a longtime medical marijuana activist and patient who suffers from glaucoma. “We also hope that this will be the beginning of a broader conversation about the benefits of cannabis and the need for full legalization.”
Wisconsin Lags Behind Other States
Wisconsin is one of the few states that has not legalized any form of marijuana, despite the growing trend of legalization across the country. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 36 states and four territories have legalized medical marijuana, 19 states and two territories have legalized recreational marijuana, and 14 states and two territories have decriminalized marijuana possession.
Wisconsin has also lagged behind its neighboring states, such as Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota, which have all legalized medical and recreational marijuana. According to a report by the Wisconsin Policy Forum, Wisconsin could generate up to $272 million in annual tax revenue and save up to $98 million in law enforcement costs if it legalized marijuana like its neighbors.
The report also found that Wisconsin has some of the highest rates of marijuana arrests and racial disparities in the nation. In 2019, Wisconsin had the fourth-highest rate of marijuana arrests among the 50 states, and Black people were 4.2 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, despite similar rates of use.
The report also noted that Wisconsin has a large and unregulated black market for marijuana, which poses public health and safety risks for consumers and communities.
A Long-Awaited and Controversial Issue
The issue of marijuana legalization has been a long-awaited and controversial one in Wisconsin, with various attempts and proposals from both parties over the years. In 2009, a bipartisan bill to legalize medical marijuana was introduced in the legislature, but it failed to pass. In 2018, Governor Evers included a proposal to legalize medical marijuana and decriminalize small amounts of marijuana in his budget, but it was rejected by the Republican-controlled legislature. In 2019, Evers and other Democrats introduced a bill to fully legalize marijuana for both medical and recreational purposes, but it did not receive a hearing or a vote.
Meanwhile, several local governments and voters have expressed their support for legalization through various measures and referendums. In 2018, 16 counties and two cities held advisory referendums on marijuana legalization, and all of them passed with overwhelming margins. In 2020, six more cities held similar referendums, and all of them passed as well. In 2021, several municipalities, such as Madison, Racine, and Sheboygan, enacted ordinances to decriminalize or deprioritize marijuana possession.
The Republican bill to legalize medical marijuana is expected to be introduced in January, when the legislature resumes its session. It remains to be seen whether the bill will pass both chambers and be signed by the governor, or whether it will face the same fate as previous proposals.