White House Officials Discuss Marijuana Reform With Top Wisconsin Senate Democrat

July 21, 2023 · marijuanamoment.net

When the top Wisconsin Democratic senator met with key Biden administration officials at the White House on Thursday, she took the opportunity to discuss marijuana reform issues such as the ongoing review of its federal scheduling status and efforts to repair the harms of cannabis criminalization.

Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard (D) and other members of the chamber’s Democratic caucus convened in Washington, D.C. to talk about their legislative priorities and hear from the officials about ways the Biden administration’s policy are supporting the state.

Agard, an outspoken advocate for ending marijuana prohibition in Wisconsin who is preparing to again file an adult-use legalization bill this session, told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on Thursday that “we talked about a number of things—but certainly everywhere I go, I bring up cannabis policy.”

“I think it’s vitally important everywhere we go that we talk about the things that matter most to our constituents,” she said. “And when we can bring those messages up the food chain, I will take the opportunity to do that.”

While the discussion around marijuana was somewhat limited given the scope of the issues each lawmaker wanted to raise, Agard said that her points were well-received, and the administration officials expressed that they were “doing what we can” to address marijuana reform at the federal level.

Tom Perez, senior adviser to President Joe Biden and director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs who previously served as the chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Secretary of Labor under the Obama administration, participated in the conversation. So did senior Biden adviser Mitch Landrieu, who served as mayor of New Orleans and lieutenant governor of Louisiana.

“Ultimately, I felt like their response to me was, ‘we hear you’—and certainly the people that I was talking to seemed like they agreed that we need to make changes,” Agard said. “But, you know…that review process is ongoing and they’re waiting for that information so that they can figure out what that what that looks like and what the next steps that might be available to them are.”

With respect to the active administrative review into marijuana’s federal scheduling that Biden directed late last year, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) told Marijuana Moment last month that agencies are aiming to complete that process by the end of the year.

Agard said the White House officials were also “encouraging us to reach out to our members in Congress and share the fact that this is important to us and continuing to keep the pressure up.”

“I think that Congress is pretty broken right now. And I think everyone would love it if maybe they could get their act together, because there’s folks of all political flavors that want something—whether it’s banking, whether it’s decriminalization, whether it’s full legalization, whether it’s reclassifying or declassifying—there are people of all different political flavors singing those songs, but I think it’s another example where it’s just really hard to get anything done.”

The minority leader understands that frustration well, as Republican lawmakers in her state have long resisted efforts to enact even modest cannabis reform, despite the popularity of legalization among Wisconsin voters.

The Wisconsin Senate rejected two amendments to a budget bill that would have legalized marijuana last month, including one led by Agard—putting lawmakers on record about the popular voter-supported policy.

After Republican senators stripped cannabis provisions from the governor’s budget in committee in May, the minority leader gave the full chamber a chance to enact the reform, with one omnibus amendment that would have restored several administrative priorities including marijuana legalization and another clean measure focused exclusively on legalizing cannabis.

The result in the GOP-controlled legislature isn’t entirely unexpected, but it does represent the first time that voters will be able to get a clear sense of where all their senators stand on the issue.

Agard, who previously spoke with Marijuana Moment in May about the challenges of advancing cannabis reform amid GOP opposition, said that it’s “so important that people reach out to their elected officials and share with them why a ‘no’ vote when it comes to cannabis policy in Wisconsin is harmful and how that impacts them personally.”

Meanwhile, Gov. Tony Evers (D) signed a large-scale bill last month that contains a controversial provision blocking the ability of local governments to put non-binding advisory questions on the ballot—a policy that’s been used over the years to demonstrate widespread public support for marijuana legalization.

While the legislation is principally focused on revenue sharing and increasing funding for localities, the elimination of the advisory questions could threaten the democratic process that’s empowered voters across the state to tell their lawmakers where they stand on cannabis legalization.

During last year’s election alone, voters in three counties and five municipalities approved referenda voicing support for cannabis legalization, which is a reform that’s also backed by the governor but has consistently stalled under GOP leadership in Madison.

Separately, the Republican speaker of the Assembly said last month that his caucus plans to introduce a medical marijuana bill as early as this summer. But he emphasized that it will be unlike any existing medical cannabis law in the country, strongly signaling that it will be significantly restrictive.

Democratic lawmakers have been skeptical about the reported efforts by GOP colleagues to advance medical cannabis reform in the state. Evers and Agard have been among those who’ve been pushing for comprehensive legalization, but so far cannabis issues have failed to advance in the conservative legislature.

The governor said in January that he does believe Republicans will introduce medical cannabis legislation this session, and he committed to signing it into law, so long as it’s not “flawed” with too many limitations.

The governor and the GOP majority have had a strained relationship on this issue. Leadership has criticized Evers for putting adult-use legalization in recent budget requests, with the Assembly speaker warning this year that including the broad reform could jeopardize talks on more modest medical marijuana legislation.

He did it anyway—and, at a joint committee hearing in May, Republicans responded in kind, stripping both recreational and medical cannabis language from the budget proposal, along with hundreds of other policy items.

At the Senate minority leader’s request, the state’s non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) carried out a study that was released in March showing that Wisconsin residents purchased more than $121 million worth of marijuana from Illinois retailers in 2022, contributing about $36 million in tax revenue to the state.

A separate report published by Wisconsin Policy Forum in February found that 50 percent of adults 21 and older in the state live within 75 minutes of an out-of-state cannabis retailer, such as in Illinois or Michigan. That percentage stands to increase when Minnesota’s market eventually comes online. (Full Story)

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