A top Wisconsin Republican lawmaker says his party is aiming to file a long-discussed, but as yet unseen, medical marijuana bill this fall. The comment comes as Democrats draw attention to the fact that the state is now an island of prohibition in the region, with one legislator visiting a dispensary and buying cannabis in nearby Michigan over the weekend.
As Minnesota’s marijuana legalization law went into effect last week, Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) said that his caucus “is crafting a proposal that we hope to bring forward this fall,” giving a timeline for the legislation in a new interview with The Wisconsin State Journal after repeated pledges to introduce medical cannabis legislation.
Vos’s prior commitments have been met with skepticism from Democrats, including the pro-legalization Senate minority leader who says she has yet to hear from her Republican colleagues about any substantive plans to advance the issue.
Details about the proposal haven’t been released, but the expectation is that it would be a strictly limited measure that may prove too restrictive to earn the support of Democrats who want to see Wisconsin follow the lead of neighboring states like Illinois and Minnesota that have legalized marijuana for adult use.
In the meantime, Wisconsinites are taking advantage of those outside state markets, including Rep. Kristina Shelton (D), who toured a Michigan cannabis business over the weekend and said in a Twitter post that she “grabbed incredible merch and yes, purchased some product.”
“Here’s the deal folks… the most dangerous thing about cannabis is that it’s illegal in Wisconsin,” she said.
Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard (D), who has been a vocal advocate for marijuana reform and recently raised the issue with Biden administration officials during a meeting at the White House, shared Shelton’s post and said that it’s not a matter of “if” Wisconsin with enact legalization, “but when.”
“The devil is in the details—and, frankly, the majority party in Wisconsin has the ability to deliver on pretty much anything they want to get done due to their gerrymandered majority,” Agard told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on Monday.
“It’s really interesting to me that maybe with the heat being turned up in Wisconsin with the possibility of more fair maps and more fair representation that the Republican Party is waking up more to the will of the people,” she said, referencing lawsuits that have been filed in the state Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the GOP-drawn legislative district maps. A new justice was recently sworn in to that court, giving it a 4-3 liberal majority that could bolster the chances of the lawsuit’s success.
“If in fact Speaker Vos actually puts something forward, again it’s vitally important that we look at the details of that policy and make sure that it matches up with what people in Wisconsin actually are asking for,” Agard said.
But this is not the first time that Vos has suggested that his caucus would be doing the work to come up with a medical cannabis bill. He’s routinely talked about being open to incremental reform over the years, and he previously said that he planned to introduce legislation “later in the summer” this year.
“Clearly people have been asking the speaker about this for a long time, and he continues to pivot away from actually doing something that will provide relief and forward momentum in the state of Wisconsin,” Agard said, emphasizing the need to “get it done right as opposed to just getting excited about having a bill introduced without the adequate review of people who it’s impacting the most.”
An analysis that the minority leader requested from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau earlier this year estimated that Wisconsin residents purchased more than $121 million worth of marijuana from legal retailers in neighboring Illinois 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. That percentage stands to increase now that Minnesota’s market is coming online.
“Most of us know people that are doing this, and it’s not good for the state of Wisconsin,” the minority leader, who also highlighted the first tribally owned cannabis shops opening in Minnesota, said. “It’s not making us be safer to be an island of prohibition. It’s not helping our prosperity. It’s not honoring people’s personal liberties and freedom. In fact, it’s continuing to push us backwards.”
The Wisconsin Senate rejected two amendments to a budget bill that would have legalized marijuana in June, 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 got 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 in June 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.
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. (Full Story)