Gov. Tony Evers' next two-year budget will include a proposal to legalize recreational marijuana as part of plan to generate more than $165 million each year for rural schools and underserved communities.
The proposal to tax and regulate marijuana similar to alcohol sales is likely to be shot down by the Republican-controlled Legislature, which has opposed efforts to legalize marijuana in the past. Thirty-six states have passed laws legalizing medical marijuana and 15 states are regulating recreational use of marijuana, including neighboring states Michigan and Illinois.
Evers said in a statement that the proposal would provide more state revenue, create jobs and cut down on criminal justice system costs.
"Legalizing and taxing marijuana in Wisconsin — just like we do already with alcohol — ensures a controlled market and safe product are available for both recreational and medicinal users and can open the door for countless opportunities for us to reinvest in our communities and create a more equitable state," said Evers.
In 2018, voters in 16 Wisconsin counties and two cities supported ballot questions about the use of marijuana, a dozen of which were related to medical marijuana. Evers floated a proposal to legalize medical marijuana and decriminalize possessing small amounts under the current budget, but that was shot down by GOP leaders.
Some Republican lawmakers have supported legislation to legalize medical marijuana in recent years, including now Sen. Mary Felzkowski, R-Tomahawk, and Sen. Kathy Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls.
Bernier said Sunday that she's open to legalizing medical marijuana and decriminalizing small amounts of the drug, noting it may have potential to help people break their addiction to drugs like methamphetamine or heroin. She said she's willing to work with Evers, but also indicated his past efforts to decriminalize marijuana were a thinly veiled effort to legalize recreational weed.
Bernier called the governor's proposal "divisive."
"The bottom line is, he knows, I know, we know that the Republican Legislature is not going to legalize marijuana, per se," said Bernier. "So, let's talk about the things we can do, and work together."
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said in a recent WisPolitics forum that he wouldn't support legalizing recreational marijuana. While he backs legalizing medical marijuana, Vos added that he wouldn't support including that proposal in the state budget.
Neither Vos nor Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostberg, could be immediately reached for comment on Sunday.
A Marquette University Law School poll in 2019 found 59 percent of voters think marijuana use should be legal while a significant majority — 83 percent — believe medical marijuana should be legalized.
Evers is proposing to set aside $80 million of the proposed $165 million each year to invest in communities through a new fund that aims to improve equity and aid underserved communities. Of that, more than $34 million would boost sparsity aid to help rural school districts and any money leftover would go to the state's main fund. The investment would begin in the second year of the 2021-2023 biennial budget.
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The state Department of Revenue and the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection would be tasked with oversight of recreational marijuana under the proposal. Marijuana retailers would be required to obtain a permit from the Department of Revenue to operate, and people would have to be 21 or older to buy recreational weed. Minors would be prohibited from buying marijuana.
Those seeking to buy medical marijuana wouldn't have to pay retail taxes under the proposal.
Residents would be able to possess no more than 2 ounces of marijuana and six plants under the proposal. Those who live outside the state would be limited to .25 ounces of marijuana.
Opponents of legalizing marijuana say the commercialization of the substance is "extremely misguided" at a time when the nation is struggling with drug abuse due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Dr. Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) and a former senior policy advisor to the Obama Administration.
“Each day, it seems, more data is released showing today’s highly potent marijuana to be even worse for public health than we ever thought, and states that have commercialized have witnessed dramatic increases in marijuana-impaired driving deaths, hospitalizations, and other issues," said Sabet in a statement. "All the while, revenues from marijuana taxes have barely registered as more than a drop in the bucket."
Supporters of legalization include Jay Selthofner, founder of Northern Wisconsin National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML. He said the governor's announcement is exciting and sends a signal that Democrats are willing to support the measure. But, he acknowledged it's unlikely to pass in the budget. He would like to see lawmakers introduce a stand-alone bill to legalize marijuana and hold a public hearing.
"Prohibition is unconstitutional," said Selthofner. "In my particular eyes, cannabis is safer than alcohol or cigarettes, and the wasteful spending we have on prohibition, which is not supported by science or the public, needs to change."
Selthofner argued that Wisconsin has the opportunity to create or attract thousands of jobs. One report said Colorado's cannabis industry now employs nearly 35,000 workers. He also contended that prohibition of marijuana use has highlighted racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
Under Wisconsin law, criminal possession of marijuana is charged as a misdemeanor on the first offense, but subsequent offenses can be charged as a felony. That could mean a fine of up to $10,000 or three-and-a-half years in prison. Wisconsin cities like Milwaukee, Madison, Eau Claire and Superior have made minor marijuana possession punishable by a fine.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin has found that application of the law shows racial disparities in Wisconsin. In a report last year, the civil liberties group found Black people are four times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession in Wisconsin, ranking 14th in the nation for racial disparities in arrests for marijuana possession.
Four Wisconsin counties were ranked among the top 20 counties in the nation for racial disparities among marijuana possession arrests: Ozaukee, Manitowoc, Washington and Waukesha counties.
Marijuana arrests in Wisconsin for sales and possession combined dropped from 19,261 in 2018 to 16,044 in 2019, according to most recent data available from the Wisconsin Department of Justice.
Editors's note: This story was updated on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021, at 2 p.m. with comment from Smart Approaches to Marijuana.