A referendum on Dane County’s April 1 ballot will pose a “yes or no” question to voters: Should the state government enact policies to legalize marijuana?

While the referendum is only advisory in nature, it coincides with a bill introduced by Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, to legalize pot for medicinal and recreational purposes. The bill was just assigned to committee, and will not have a hearing until next session at the earliest.

However, Sargent said with national acceptance of marijuana spreading, now is the time to open up the conversation.

“It became really apparent that the most dangerous thing about marijuana in our society is that it's illegal, and we need to change that conversation and change that dialogue,” Sargent said.

The bill, which has seven co-sponsors, sets the legal age for marijuana use at 21. Stores that would sell marijuana would have to be licensed like liquor stores are required to have to sell alcohol. Marijuana would also be taxed similarly to the way tobacco and alcohol is under the bill, Sargent said.

“I don't believe this is a matter of if this is going to happen. I think it's going to be a matter of when,” Sargent said.

Dane County Supervisor Leland Pan pushed for a referendum on the issue for the spring ballot. He said there are economic benefits to legalizing and taxing pot. He added the scope of using the substance would become safer, and it would help scale back serious street crime and prison time associated with marijuana use.

Pan added some politicians privately support marijuana legalization, but are unsure about supporting those beliefs through legislation.

“A referendum in Dane County, I think, would really help send a message that this is an issue that we can safely talk about,” Pan said. “And that those in elected office and those in power should know that this is an issue that's gaining traction and gaining visibility and gaining support.”

Republican Party of Dane County chairman Scott Grabins said the motivation behind certain referendums are sometimes not what they seem to be. He said he has seen politics push questions onto the ballot before, and this marijuana issue might fall into that category.

“I think they have a very specific agenda here,” Grabins said. “I think it goes back to the Republicans having control on the state level and wanting to have that opportunity to perhaps have a voice there and try to dictate to the state some policy.”

Grabins said throwing something like pot into the election pulls focus from where it needs to be, while possibly pushing more liberal voters to the polls when turnout is known to be low.

“Perhaps that's why we don't see it in other counties because they're focused on what a county should do rather than trying to dictate policy to the state,” Grabins said.

Pan maintained the only reason the county is posing the question to voters is Sargent’s bill and the timely nature of the topic.

“I don't need to play political games to turn out progressive voters. I just need to get my message heard,” Pan said.