Wisconsin’s New Cannabis Legalization Bill Faces Tough Odds

    Two Wisconsin lawmakers are introducing a bill to legalize cannabis for adult use, in a state that currently doesn’t permit even medical marijuana. If successful, Wisconsin would become the 23rd state to legalize. It’s already almost completely surrounded by legal-cannabis states—including Michigan (2018), Illinois (2019) and Minnesota (2023).

    On the face of it the bill’s chances appear slim, when the Republican-controlled legislature has so far refused to consider any such move. But proponents hope that bipartisan public support for legalization will exert political pressure. And events at the Wisconsin Supreme Court could ultimately change the legislature’s dynamics.

    State Senator Melissa Agard (D) and Representative Darrin B. Madison (D) introduced their bill on September 22. It would legalize cannabis for adult and medical use, expunge past convictions and regulate sales. Further provisions include grants to support a diverse and equitable industry.

    “I have parents of very sick children, who know children with the same disease in other states have access to a plant that provides relief they can’t access here.”

    “I have farmers in Wisconsin who are reaching out to me and would love to diversify their crops and add cannabis into their rotation,” Sen. Agard told Filter, referencing her recent tour around the state to speak with voters about legalization.

    “I have parents of very sick children, who know children with the same disease in other states have access to a plant that provides relief they can’t access here,” she continued. “I’ve talked to veterans who have experienced PTSD-type responses due to their time in service to our nation, who have been able to have access to cannabis and find relief, but don’t want to be a felon in their own home community.”

    Such anecdotes are backed by data—for example, a 2022 poll which found 61 percent of Wisconsin voters support full cannabis legalization. That included 75 percent of Democrats, 60 percent of independents and 51 percent of Republicans.

    Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers (D) campaigned on and supports legalization. But the Republican-controlled House and Senate have not only refused to consider adult use, but even threaten to block medical legalization over Democrats’ support for full legalization.

    A heavily gerrymandered state electoral map ensures that Republican lawmakers retain the final say. However, two redistricting lawsuits are before the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

    Wisconsin’s heavily gerrymandered state electoral map, among the worst in the country, ensures that Republican lawmakers retain the final say—for now—over any marijuana reform, in a state that narrowly went for Biden in the 2020 presidential election.

    However, two lawsuits concerning redistricting are before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The court is now liberal-controlled, after a decisive election win by Judge Janet Protasiewicz earlier this year, and it could choose to strike down the current maps.

    Elected Republicans are demanding that Judge Protasiewicz recuse herself from the cases, however, because she commented during her campaign that the current maps are “rigged.” They’ve even threatened to impeach her if she doesn’t.

    The outcome could heavily impact the makeup of Wisconsin’s legislature, and therefore the prospects for progressive reforms like cannabis legalization and much more.

    A Black Wisconsin resident is 4.2 times more likely than a white resident to be arrested for marijuana.

    Marijuana enforcement in Wisconsin is a main driver of drug arrests. According to data from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a majority of the 20,963 marijuana arrests in 2018 were just for possession. Marijuana possession made up 57 percent of all drug arrests statewide. And marijuana arrests actually increased 12 percent from 2010-2018.

    Despite data showing roughly similar marijuana use among demographic groups, Black residents are targeted by enforcement. A Black Wisconsin resident is 4.2 times more likely than a white resident to be arrested for marijuana. And this disparity gets far worse in certain areas.

    Realities like these make legalization proponents determined to fight against the odds.

    According to a copy of the bill and details shared with Filter, adults over 21 could possess up to 5 ounces of cannabis for personal use, and grow up to six plants at home. Civil and criminal penalties would still apply to possession over the legal limit.

    Medical use would be legalized for anyone—minors included—who has a “qualifying medical condition” such as HIV/AIDS, glaucoma or cancer, and who registers for a medical card.

    The Department of Revenue would issue licenses to businesses in the cannabis industry. Anyone applying for a license would be given a prioritization “score” to reflect how their business is seen to protect the environment, provide local jobs and safety, and uphold the law.

    With city or county approval, a business could also open a “marijuana lounge” for people to consume on-site. Companies with 20 or more employees would be required to have labor peace agreements, promising not to engage in “union busting” activity if workers try to unionize.

    Past convictions for marijuana charges would be reviewed by state courts, which would then act to expunge criminal records. Impacted people would not need to file a petition to expunge their record. Misdemeanors would be dismissed and expunged, while felonies would be re-designated unless there is a “public safety risk.”

    Sixty percent of cannabis tax revenues would be allocated to a “Community Reinvestment Fund.”

    People who use cannabis off the job would also be protected from employer drug tests. Government programs like food stamps, Medicaid and unemployment benefits would not be permitted to test people for cannabis or THC and use the results to deny benefits.

    Cannabis producers would pay a 15 percent excise tax, and retail dispensaries would pay a10 percent state sales tax. And 60 percent of cannabis tax revenues would be allocated to a “Community Reinvestment Fund”—to support community health and opportunities for people of color and women in the cannabis industry. The state would also pay $375,000 over a two-year period for the transportation department to train police officers in “drug influence and impaired driving.”

    Sen. Agard highlighted the social justice aspects of the bill, including worker protections, automatic expungement, and social equity funding. She also estimated that, based on research by the legislative fiscal bureau, legal cannabis sales would bring in $165 million annually in tax dollars.

    “Based on the number of cars in parking lots in Michigan and Illinois, I think that number is probably higher,” she added. “There’s the potential economic stimulus associated with this law change, that could push us closer to potentially a billion dollars based on what we’ve seen in other states.”

    She also cited “the ability for local governments and law enforcement and the judicial system to not spend money on unjust cannabis-related offenses, because those laws wouldn’t be on the books any more.”



    Photograph by Elsa Olofsson via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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