Wisconsin inches toward medical marijuana legalization as GOP leaders signal support

Republican leaders in the Assembly and Senate say legalization bills would come with strict regulations

marijuana harvest (close up)
David Dermer/AP Photo

Republican leaders in Wisconsin say legalizing medical marijuana could be part of their legislative agenda for 2023.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, told Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Morning Show” on Monday that he favors partial legalization of the drug.

“I support a form of medical marijuana, where it is very restricted, so it’s only going to folks who have a true medical condition,” Vos said.

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He also called legalization of the drug for recreational purposes “poisonous” within the GOP caucus. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has repeatedly called for Wisconsin to legalize recreational weed.

It’s not the first time Vos or Assembly GOP leaders have signaled limited support for liberalizing Wisconsin’s drug laws. The state has become an anomaly in the Midwest in recent years by not moving to legalize medicinal or recreational weed. In early 2022, then-Majority Leader Rep. Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, said he foresaw medical marijuana legalization “at some point.”

But Vos’s latest comments come after Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last week that he believes the GOP caucus in the Senate is “close” to agreeing on the passage of a medical marijuana bill. Republican support for that bill would be predicated on strict regulations that ensure it would only be prescribed to those with serious medical needs, LeMahieu told the newspaper.

Marijuana legalization has been a key difference between political parties in Wisconsin. In a December interview with WPR, Evers said he will once again propose legalization of recreational marijuana in this year’s state budget. During Evers’ first term, Republican legislative leaders discarded his proposed budgets and wrote their own, excluding marijuana legislation and other policy initiatives favored by the governor.

But Evers said in the interview that if the Legislature were to pass a medical marijuana bill that stopped short of legalizing the drug for recreational use, he “would certainly sign that bill.”

Legalization of marijuana is a broadly popular policy, according to public opinion polling, but it’s considerably more popular among Democrats and independents than it is among Republicans. About two-thirds of voters supported some form of legalization according to a November poll from the Marquette University Law School. More than 80 percent of Democrats and 67 percent of independents supported it, and only 43 percent of Republicans did. A wave of recent referendum votes in major cities have also signaled support for the policy.

In 2012, voters in Colorado made that state the first in the nation to legalize recreational marijuana, and in the decade since 20 other states have followed suit, including Wisconsin’s neighbors in Michigan and Illinois. Minnesota and Iowa have legalized medicinal marijuana.

Vos said he thinks the political consensus stops far short of allowing weed for recreational use.

“I think we could certainly try to find some consensus on medical marijuana,” he said. “But the idea that Wisconsin needs to have recreational marijuana, I just don’t support that.”