Wisconsin residents are spending millions of dollars buying legal cannabis out of state, while it remains illegal back home. A majority of Wisconsin voters support full legalization, but that’s a non-starter for the Republicans who control the state legislature.
Neighboring Illinois legalized adult-use cannabis in 2019, and began sales in 2020. A new report from Wisconsin’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimated that Illinois made $36.1 million in tax revenue from Wisconsinites purchasing cannabis products across the state line in Fiscal Year 2022—money that could have been reinvested in Wisconsin.
Wisconsin is effectively a “prohibition island” in the Midwest. Besides Illinois, it also borders Michigan, which fully legalized cannabis in 2018. Its other two neighbors, Minnesota and Iowa, both have medical marijuana, though Iowa’s law is very limited. Wisconsin residents can’t apply for a medical marijuana card in either of those states, but adult-use dispensaries don’t discriminate—and even Minnesota may go fully legal soon.
But it’s against the law to bring it back into Wisconsin, where cannabis remains illegal for any use.
According to a separate report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum, half of all Wisconsin residents live within an hour and a half of a cannabis dispensary in another state. Where I live in Milwaukee, I drive past a billboard downtown where a cannabis company invites me to visit its stores in Illinois, an hour and 15 minutes down the highway.
But it’s against the law to bring it back into Wisconsin, where cannabis remains illegal for any use. State law treats first-time possession of any amount as a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. Second time around, it can be charged as a felony, with up to three and a half years in jail and a $10,000 fine. All charges for sale, delivery or cultivation are felonies.
Some local jurisdictions have decriminalized possession of small amounts of weed, however. In Milwaukee County, for example, it carries just a $1 civil fine. In November 2020, city lawmakers in Madison voted to decriminalize possession of up to 1 ounce of cannabis. According to NORML, 15 cities and towns statewide have decided to decriminalize or reduce penalties for possession.
Local variation has transformed the landscape of marijuana arrests. According to data released by Milwaukee County District Attorney John T. Chisholm, marijuana arrests dropped significantly in Milwaukee between 2010-2020 while remaining high in the rest of the state. Wisconsin had over 14,300 marijuana arrests statewide in 2010; nearly one in three of those were in Milwaukee. By 2019 arrests fell to under 2,000 in Milwaukee, yet remained above 14,000 statewide.
Marijuana arrests everywhere target Black residents, who are more than three times likelier than white residents to be arrested in Milwaukee—and four times likelier statewide.
Legalization Bids Have Faltered
According to a February 2022 poll from Marquette Law School, 61 percent of Wisconsin voters support full cannabis legalization. That includes 51 percent of Republicans, 60 percent of independents, and 75 percent of Democrats.
Some elected officials have tried, again and again, to capitalize on that popular support. For 10 years now, state Senator Melissa Agard (D-Madison) has introduced LRB 4361, a bill to legalize adult-use and medical cannabis in Wisconsin. It has never received a public hearing.
“We’re a decade now into it, and they’re still making excuses as to why we’re not even having public hearings on this bill.”
“A lot of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle said we have to wait and see what happens, it’s too early,” Senator Agard told Filter. “We’re a decade now into it, and they’re still making excuses as to why we’re not even having public hearings on this bill—despite the fact we know a vast majority of people in Wisconsin support policy change for responsible adult use.”
Agard’s bill would allow people over 21 to possess up to 2 ounces of cannabis for personal use, while over-18s could enroll as medical marijuana patients. It would allow home cultivation of up to six cannabis plants. People with prior marijuana convictions or currently serving sentences could “repeal or reduce” those records and sentences. Employees would be protected from termination for cannabis use off the job. And 60 percent of all state cannabis tax dollars would be set aside in a “Community Reinvestment Fund”.
Governor Tony Evers (D), who was reelected in November 2022, campaigned on a promise to legalize adult-use cannabis. He included both medical and adult-use legalization in his latest budget request to the legislature on February 15, adopting Sen. Agard’s proposal. But Republicans, who control both the Senate and Assembly, are refusing to consider adult-use legalization. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) publicly stated that Republicans might be willing to consider just medical legalization, but will pull their support even for that if Evers continues to push adult use.
“I do know there’s Republicans who support [legalization], but they haven’t signed on because they’ve been given the message from their leadership that this isn’t a priority,” Sen. Agard said. “There’s a big list of things in Wisconsin that aren’t moving forward despite the fact the majority of our people want it to happen.”
“They don’t need to listen to the people because the maps are drawn in such a way that they’ve picked their people.”
In 2011, under unified Republican control of the state government, the party redrew congressional and legislative maps. Their gerrymandering gave them significant electoral advantages. In 2022, Governor Evers lost a state Supreme Court lawsuit to redraw the state’s maps, with the justices adopting a new Republican-drawn map. Experts have called it one of the worst gerrymanders in the whole country, describing it as “virtually 100 percent” sure to guarantee Republican control of the legislature.
This, according to Agard, is key to understanding barriers for many political issues in Wisconsin, cannabis included. “When we’ve had over a decade of sole control by the Republicans in both houses of the legislature,” she said, “they don’t need to listen to the people because the maps are drawn in such a way that they’ve picked their people.”