A top Republican Wisconsin lawmaker is pushing back against the idea that the conservative legislature is close to making a deal on medical marijuana legalization, and he’s again warning the Democratic governor against calling for adult-use legalization as part of his forthcoming budget request.
While Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R) said last week that his caucus is “getting pretty close” on medical cannabis reform, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in a new interview published on Wednesday that that’s not necessarily the case from his chamber’s perspective.
The speaker said that any attempt to legalize medical marijuana must be narrowly tailored for specific, seriously ill patients and not serve as a pathway to recreational legalization. Vos also reiterated that if Gov. Tony Evers (D) tries including recreational legalization in his budget, as he has pledged to do, that could “poison the well” and upend bipartisan discussions about the more modest reform.
“I want to make sure that, at least from my perspective, we are crystal clear this is not about a pathway toward recreational, it’s not about creating a new industry with all kinds of new revenue for the state,” Vos said. “It’s about making sure that people who suffer with a chronic disease get relief in a way that helps their quality of life be better.”
“I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that it is helping the people who have a chronic disease, not creating a pathway or a gateway to recreational marijuana somewhere in the future,” the speaker added. “I think—I know our caucus would not support that. I don’t think it’d be good for the state.”
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The governor said recently that he was encouraged by the Senate leader’s remarks about nearing consensus on medical marijuana, and he’s prepared to sign such legislation as long as it’s not “flawed” by including too many restrictions.
But while Evers has said that he’s willing to compromise by advancing medical cannabis, even though he backs adult-use legalization, Vos said he feels that simply including the larger ask in a budget request could tank talks on the narrower reform.
The speaker said that lawmakers previously told the governor that “if you keep saying this is about recreational marijuana, you’re going to poison the well and make it really hard to get medical marijuana.”
“So my hope is he backs off that and doesn’t include it in the state budget,” Vos, who previously spoke about his interest in moving on a limited medical marijuana bill, said. “Maybe that’ll be a sign that we can find a common consensus.”
But Evers doesn’t plan to back down from making the broader budget request.
“Gov. Evers is among the overwhelming majority of Wisconsinites who believe we should legalize and regulate marijuana, much like we do with alcohol,” a spokesperson from his office said. “The governor ran for re-election—and won—promising to propose legalizing marijuana in his next budget, and he will keep the promise he made to the people of Wisconsin.”
The governor, who stressed in his inaugural address last week that the state needs to have a “meaningful conversation about treating marijuana much like we do alcohol,” included adult-use and medical marijuana legalization in his 2021 budget and decriminalization and medical cannabis in his 2019 proposal, but the GOP-controlled legislature has consistently blocked the reforms.
Meanwhile, in its budget request that was unveiled last month, the state Department of Revenue (DOR) called on the governor to put legalization in his executive proposal. The State Public Defender (SDP) is separately seeking decriminalization of cannabis possession.
Some state lawmakers have also filed bills to legalize cannabis for adult use—and former Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R) has said legalization is “likely” to happen at some point—but the legislature has so far failed to pass even more modest proposals like decriminalization or the legalization of medical cannabis.
Ahead of the November election, Evers met with college students and urged supporters to get engaged and vote, in part to ensure that the state advances marijuana legalization.
If Democrats had won enough seats, it could have also set them up to pass a resolution that the governor recently introduced to allow citizens to put initiatives on the ballot. Advocates expressed hope that the move could open the door to finally letting voters decide on marijuana legalization, but it’s unlikely that GOP lawmakers will go along with it.
Meanwhile, voters across the state have been making their voices heard on cannabis reform over the past several election cycles. Most recently, voters in three counties and five municipalities across the state approved non-binding advisory questions on their local ballots in support of legalization.
The local votes are largely meant to serve a messaging purpose, providing lawmakers with a clear policy temperature-check among their constituents. But those that were approved will not change any laws by themselves.
A statewide poll released in August found that a solid 69 percent of registered voters in Wisconsin believe that cannabis should be legal. That includes 81 percent of Democrats, 75 percent of independents and 51 percent of Republicans.
Republicans filed a limited medical cannabis bill last year—and it got a hearing on the unofficial marijuana holiday 4/20, but that came too late in the legislative session for lawmakers to actually vote on the measure.
Other GOP members have filed bills to more modestly decriminalize marijuana possession in the state, but none of those proposals advanced.
As it stands, marijuana possession is punishable by a maximum $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail for a first offense. People convicted of a subsequent offense would face a felony charge punishable by a maximum $10,000 fine and up to three and a half years in prison.
The governor vetoed a GOP-led bill last year that would have significantly ramped up criminal penalties for people who use butane or similar fuels to extract marijuana.
And in the interim as lawmakers pursue reform, the governor has issued hundreds of pardons during his years in office, primarily to people convicted of non-violent marijuana or other drug offenses.