An increasing number of Midwestern states are legalizing marijuana in some form or another. Will Wisconsin do the same? State lawmakers have mixed opinions on the issue.
Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, has been a member of the state Assembly for six years — and that's about how long she's been working on a bill that would fully legalize marijuana in Wisconsin. While she's authored legislation three times, it's never gone anywhere in the Republican-controlled Legislature. But with neighboring states approving recreational cannabis, she feels like it's time to try again.
"Many of the Midwestern states surrounding us are either medicinal or full legalization — Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota. Industry is setting up in those communities and it's going to have a negative impact on the state of Wisconsin," Sargent says.
She introduced a new bill in May. Under it, people could buy marijuana legally at state-regulated stores. Any other method of purchasing the drug would be illegal. Sargent says her bill would ensure that the marijuana being sold through the state is safe.
"People have recently been following the conversation when it comes to vape products and some of them have involved THC in them. Those are being made on the black market and there is no regulation or oversight into what's going into those products," she says.
Sargent's bill is currently sitting in an Assembly committee. It has no GOP sponsors. She says she hopes it at least gets a public hearing.
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Some Republicans who control the Legislature have voiced their opposition, even to medical marijuana. Though, GOP Assembly Speaker Robin Vos says he's open to discussing medical cannabis this fall.
But when WISN-TV asked Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald if he would support it he said, “No. No, and I think we're seeing states like Michigan and Minnesota that now have embraced the whole idea of even recreational. I think it would be wise for Wisconsin to kind of sit back and see what happens in these states."
And then last month, Fitzgerald voiced his strongest opposition to medical marijuana to date. In a statement, he said, "Everyone knows that medical marijuana leads to legalized marijuana." Fitzgerald pointed to studies that show some states with easier access to marijuana have seen an increase in emergency room visits and impaired driving accidents.
Fitzgerald made his remarks after Republican state Sen. Patrick Testin sponsored a bipartisan bill calling for the legalization of medical marijuana. Under his plan, the state would set up a registry and oversee medical cannabis dispensaries. But only those with certain illnesses such as cancer, HIV/AIDS and Alzheimer's could qualify for treatment. Testin says personal experience led him to co-sponsor the bill.
"My grandfather was diagnosed with both bone and lung cancer. He had to go outside the law to get the only medication, the only treatment that would keep his food down and get his appetite back and that was marijuana," Testin says.
He admits the bill is a long shot. But he says if Fitzgerald moves on to Congress, maybe a new Senate leader would be more open to medical marijuana. Fitzgerald is currently running for retiring Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner's seat.
Kevin Sabet is president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM). It's been lobbying Wisconsin lawmakers, urging them not to legalize marijuana in any form. Sabet cautions against what he calls the "growing commercialization" of marijuana and the potential harm.
"Today's marijuana is not the marijuana of the past. It's much more harmful than it used to be. We're not talking about old 5% Woodstock weed. We're talking about up to 99% concentrated vapes and dabs, the edibles. It's a whole different ball game today," Sabet says.
Sabet says he's been following Wisconsin's case closely and doesn't think cannabis will be legalized here. He says even medical could be a slippery slope.
"There are some components of marijuana that have medical value. But if it's done as a farce for legalization, it's really a camel's nose under the tent, then I don't think it’s helpful," Sabet says.
While opposition groups like SAM have been making their voices known, so have advocacy groups such as southeastern Wisconsin NORML. Earlier this month, it sent more than 1,200 letters from Wisconsinites to state lawmakers, urging them to support the medical marijuana bill.
The group also cites a Marquette poll from April, which shows 83% of those surveyed favor legalizing medical cannabis. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers says if any bill regarding marijuana gets to his desk, he'll sign it.
This is the third story in our series Weed & Wisconsin: When Neighboring States Legalize.