Wisconsin Senate GOP Leaders Say Assembly Bill To Create State-Run ‘DMV For Medical Marijuana’ Is A ‘Non-Starter’

January 12, 2024 · Marijuana Moment

Top Republican Wisconsin senators are already signaling that a newly unveiled bill from their Assembly GOP colleagues to create a strictly limited medical cannabis program may be a “non-starter”—especially as it concerns its novel proposal to have state-run dispensaries that the Senate majority leader is critically comparing to a “DMV for medical marijuana.”

Just days after Wisconsin Assembly Republicans held a series of press conferences across the state to announce their much-anticipated plan to legalize medical cannabis, Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R) and Senate President Chris Kapenga (R) are tempering expectations, raising concerns on behalf of their chamber’s caucus about specific provisions and the broader thrust of the Assembly legislation.

Conservative Assembly lawmakers have proudly proclaimed it would create the “most restrictive” medical marijuana program in the country, with bans on smokeable products, a limited list of qualifying conditions and just five state-run dispensaries.

It was already a question whether the state’s Democratic lawmakers and governor who have pushed for comprehensive adult-use legalization would go along with the proposal, but now a more pressing question is whether the GOP Senate will support it.

LeMahieu, the majority leader, said on Thursday that the state-controlled dispensary plan is a “non-starter for a lot of our caucus members,” questioning why the legislature would “let government grow the size of government.”

“My caucus, and maybe for a lot of members of the Assembly caucus, we campaign on controlling the size of government,” he said during a WisPolitics.com luncheon. He drew a comparison to “a DMV for medical marijuana,” though he agreed there “are a lot of good things in the bill” too that could be fodder for compromise.

Kapenga, the Senate president, seemed less enthusiastic about the broader concept of creating any medical cannabis program at all.

“Although the medical marijuana bill being introduced by the Republican State Assembly makes efforts to reduce abuse, data on the efficacy of marijuana as a treatment is inconclusive at best, with dangerous and harmful effects at worst, including public safety concerns,” he wrote on X (formerly Twitter) on Thursday.

The seeming disconnect between the Assembly and Senate GOP doesn’t exactly come as a surprise to Sen. Melissa Agard (D), who has led the charge on broader cannabis legalization in the legislature over recent sessions and who has been consistently looped out of Republican discussions on more incremental reform.

“Over the last few sessions, we’ve witnessed Wisconsin Republicans giving false hope to patients who would greatly benefit from medical marijuana,” Agard told Marijuana Moment on Thursday. “Unfortunately, it appears the GOP’s latest policy proposal is nothing more than a continuation of their pattern of smoke and mirrors when it comes to cannabis reform.”

“Cannabis legalization is a serious, substantive issue and we should treat it as such, not as a political game,” Agard, who has separately urged the public to pressure their representatives to hold a hearing on her reform legislation, said. “I will continue advocating tirelessly for full legalization of cannabis for adult, responsible usage which will help create great public safety, freedom, and economic opportunity for Wisconsinites all across the state.”

Under the Assembly GOP plan, as described, the state would create a restrictive system that limits patients to smokeless cannabis options such as oils and edibles. People with qualifying conditions would be eligible to receive a doctor’s recommendation and access the products, which would be sold at five dispensaries across the state.

The qualifying conditions include cancer, epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), glaucoma, severe chronic pain, muscle spasms, chronic nausea, multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, Alzheimer’s disease and terminal illness with less than one year life expectancy.

While the dispensaries would be state-run, growers and processors would be independently operated if they obtain a permit from the state. The pharmacists who dispense the cannabis to patients would be state employees.

According to a legislative analysis, the bill would create an Office of Medical Cannabis Regulation (OMCR) under DHS to regulate the program and manage a statewide patient and caregiver registry. The Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) would be responsible for overseeing the cultivation, processing and testing.

Only the OMCR would be allowed to sell medical cannabis products to patients, and it must set prices “only at a level sufficient to recoup product and operational costs.” Medical cannabis would be exempt from the state sales tax under the proposal. Dispensaries would also be prohibited from advertising their services.

The legislation specifically keeps in place laws that allow employers to prohibit cannabis use, even if it’s used lawfully under the medical marijuana program.

Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment that the bill “puts all the eggs in one very unstable basket—state-run dispensaries.”

“Every state medical cannabis program relies on private stores, not state-run dispensaries. For good reason,” she said. “Licensing and regulating private cannabis stores is not federally preempted. However, requiring state employees to commit a federal felony by selling cannabis almost surely is.”

“Making matters worse, the bill provides no legal protections until and unless state-run dispensaries begin selling cannabis, which may never happen. Patients could not simply obtain their medicine legally in one of their border states with access,” she continued. “Doing so would remain a crime. Wisconsin patients deserve a system of access that has been proven to work despite federal law, not false hope.”

Gov. Tony Evers (D), who supports more broadly legalizing recreational marijuana, surprised some by saying last week ahead of the release of the details of the GOP Assembly plan that he’d be inclined to sign a limited reform into law, as long as the bill didn’t contain “poison pills.” He said that while he still believes Wisconsin should adopt comprehensive legalization, this could be a “step in the right direction.”

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R), for his part, said last month he’s “pretty confident” the legislature will approve the medical marijuana legislation, even if it’s “just Republican votes” that get it across the finish line.

In an interview this week, he said supporters are “very close, if not there” to securing enough votes for passage.

Meanwhile, Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R), who has previously filed limited medical cannabis legislation, has said that Democratic-led efforts to push adult-use legalization have complicated Republicans’ work on modest reform.

Evers, meanwhile, recently said that the GOP legislature’s inaction over recent years has meant Wisconsin “is losing out to our neighboring states” that have enacted the reform.

“It’s high time we legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana in Wisconsin much like we do with alcohol,” said Evers, who granted another round of pardons, including dozens issued for people with prior marijuana convictions, in November.

The state Department of Revenue released a fiscal estimate of the economic impact of Agard’s legalization bill in November, projecting that the reform would generate nearly $170 million annually in tax revenue.

Also, a legislative analysis requested by the minority leader estimated that Wisconsin residents spent more than $121 million on cannabis in Illinois alone last year, contributing $36 million in tax revenue to the neighboring state.

Despite all that, the conservative legislature has long resisted even incremental reform—stripping marijuana proposals from the governor’s budget requests, for example.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of Wisconsin lawmakers formally introduced a measure to decriminalize marijuana possession last month. Sponsors hope the limited, noncommercial reform will win enough support to clear the state’s GOP-controlled legislature and become law in parallel with the separate medical cannabis bill. (Full Story)

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