Cannabis Legalization Discussions Continue to Heat Up in Wisconsin Following Gov. Tony Evers’ Budget Proposal

Democratic minority leaders split on whether cannabis measures would survive a standalone bill.

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March 8, 2021

Bryan Faust | Adobe Stock
Republican majority leaders in the Wisconsin state legislature spoke loud and clear: cannabis legalization doesn’t belong in their state’s biennial budget.

Two years ago, they rejected Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ proposal to decriminalize adult-use cannabis and legalize medicinal cannabis. And when Evers introduced another proposal last month, to regulate and tax adult-use cannabis for the 2021-23 biennium, Rep. Mark Born and Sen. Howard Marklein, the Joint Finance Committee co-chairs, deemed it dead on arrival.

While there’s not much hope for cannabis legalization in the governor’s budget—an avenue that also has proved fatal in other states—Evers’ proposals have continued to fan the flame of debate in Wisconsin, where only cannabidiol (CBD) sale and consumption is legal. During a March 4 virtual luncheon hosted by WisPolitics, an online magazine and news service covering political and governmental news in Wisconsin, Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley and Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz were split on whether a medical cannabis measure would survive in a standalone bill.

“That could pass,” said Bewley, a Democrat who represents a rural district in the northern part of the state. “I think that nationwide this is something that all states are going to deal with. And I think we could approach it from the way that the governor did, which is to put it in the budget with all of these different aspects and ways.”

After rejecting Evers’ budget measure last month, Marklein said cannabis legalization is a significant enough policy change that it should be debated in the light of day on its own.

Last week, Bewley said medical cannabis legalization is a no-brainer. In 2019, a Marquette University Law Poll found that 83% of Wisconsin voters supported legalizing medical cannabis with a doctor’s prescription. It also found 59% supported adult-use legalization.

“I think the medical marijuana portion of it is the one that we all know is widely accepted,” she said. “I heard [more than] 80% of the people of Wisconsin are in favor of that. I believe that it could pass as a standalone. But, for now, it’s in the budget, in a larger form. But we will be seeing something happen on marijuana in the future.”

Bewley’s minority leader colleague in the lower chamber wasn’t so sure.

“I don’t know that I see it passing,” said Hintz, a Democrat who represents an urban district that encompasses Oshkosh. “Perhaps I see it getting further along. I know that I’ve talked to some of my Republican colleagues, both some who are more libertarian in nature, some who just recognize the benefits of medicinal marijuana, and certainly see and hear the public support.

“I’m an incrementalist in being reasonable. If we can get a hearing on it, answer some questions, maybe explain to folks who don’t understand, then we can get further and maybe we can get there. But it’s up to the legislature to decide that we want to join the majority of states out there; that we want to recognize that the public overwhelmingly wants this, and that attitudes and responses are changing.”

Neighboring states Illinois and Michigan both have adult-use cannabis programs, while Minnesota has a medical program, Hintz pointed out. To the southwest, Iowa is in the same CBD-only boat as Wisconsin.

In Evers’ budget proposal, he said legalizing adult-use cannabis is expected to generate more than $165 million annually in the state, beginning in the second year of the biennium. That extra revenue would hold extra weight if Wisconsin were in fiscal distress—it’s not. According to the MacIver Institute, a Wisconsin-based conservative think tank, the state’s general fund balance was roughly $1.2 billion in October 2020, which represented the largest year-end balance Wisconsin had seen in the past two decades.

That in mind, Hintz said the $165 million in potential revenue is nothing to sneeze at, but he doesn’t think that’s the reason state lawmakers should pass legislation in favor of adult-use cannabis. He said non-monetary factors and impacts also should be taken into consideration.

“I’m glad that [Evers] put it out there,” Hintz said. “I think just the proposal alone accelerates the discussion, and I think we will eventually get there. I just don’t know if it’s going to be in the next six months or in the next decade.”