City Life

The slow burn for marijuana legalization

A new crop of advocates advance the conversation

Steve Acheson struggles with a back injury and posttraumatic stress disorder resulting from his active duty in Iraq from 2004-2008. Both health issues trigger his anxiety in crowds and have brought on depression and frequent nightmares. Acheson served as lead Humvee driver for a U.S. Army colonel on more than 400 missions, and he was still deployed when he underwent two of his three back surgeries. For the back pain that still plagues him, Acheson was prescribed a raft of opiates, muscle relaxants and other drugs by Veterans Affairs doctors. He says he replaced all that with cannabis, which he started using daily in 2009. 

“I tried cannabis and … instantly, I knew. The opiates did nothing but get me high and borderline addicted. Cannabis actually allowed my pain to go away,” says Acheson, who lives just outside Blanchardville, about 50 miles southwest of Madison.

Frustrated he can’t legally obtain the specific strains of cannabis he finds beneficial, Acheson advocates for the overhaul of Wisconsin and federal marijuana drug laws, which make it illegal to use, possess or sell marijuana. To that end, he helped write a resolution that the Disabled American Veterans Wisconsin passed at its state convention last June to support access to medical marijuana by veterans. The resolution was not approved for consideration at the DAV’s national convention but may be revised and resubmitted, Acheson said. 

“It’s important that our voices are heard on this issue,” Acheson says. “I’ve lost a number of my friends to suicides—more than I have to combat. And I’m tired of it. I’m tired of the only solution being presented to us is pills. It doesn’t work.”

On Jan. 1, California became the sixth state to legalize recreational marijuana. But with medical marijuana now legal in 29 states (including the states bordering Wisconsin, excluding Iowa) and Washington, D.C., Acheson and other local advocates argue that Wisconsin is behind the curve on this issue. For years, Democrats in the state Legislature have pushed for legalization, but have been stymied by Republicans. But then last year, the GOP-controlled Legislature lifted a 60-year ban on growing industrial hemp and did so nearly a century after Wisconsin had produced more industrial hemp than any other state in the nation. (Industrial hemp has low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive property in marijuana, a related cannabis sativa plant.) State lawmakers also loosened restrictions on possession of a medicinal extract of hemp known as cannabidiol, or CBD oil, which reportedly helps reduce pain, anxiety, nausea and seizures. Although a few individual Republicans have voiced interest in going further than that—such as allowing the manufacturing of CBD oil from the now legal hemp—legislative bills by Democrats have routinely stalled in committee. 

Meanwhile, a new crop of advocates who are hard to ignore—veterans, physicians and parents with sick kids—are advancing the debate. They say the state’s inaction denies Wisconsin residents access to a means of pain relief that some individuals are currently obtaining at great personal and legal risk. Some say that because Wisconsin is slow to take on regulation of marijuana, the state is missing out on considerable taxes and fees to be made from cultivation and sales.

With more states saying yes to marijuana legalization, why is Wisconsin not among them?

‘What’s standing in our way?’

While Republicans have been reluctant to tackle legalization of marijuana head on, they did embrace two cannabis-related bills last year. But many Democrats—Madison-area Dems in particular—as well as pro-marijuana advocates, insist that’s insufficient. They cite national and statewide polls that suggest the public wants to put an end to treating people as criminals for their use of marijuana. 

A majority of Wisconsinites believe marijuana should be legalized, according to a July 2016 Marquette Law School poll. Fifty-nine percent of Wisconsinites surveyed said marijuana should be regulated like alcohol. That’s up significantly from the 46 percent who said in a 2014 Marquette poll that they supported ending the prohibition on pot.

Alison Barnes, a Marquette University law professor, says the stalemate on legislative efforts is rooted in political ideology.  “So why doesn’t it get any traction here? I think it’s because we are a deeply divided state. We have a political divide and a mindset divide,” she says. Asked if the increasing public support for marijuana legalization indicates a shift in that mindset, Barnes replies, “We won’t know until they put it on the ballot.”

A bill that would do just that—place a nonbinding, statewide referendum before voters asking if they want medical marijuana legalized—was introduced early in this legislative session, but Republican leaders serving on the committee to which the proposal was assigned did not advance it.

Also dead on arrival was a 100-plus-page bill by Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison. That bill would have legalized both medical and recreational marijuana and set up a regulatory system. She says, “Ordinary, everyday Wisconsinites believe that this is something that we should be doing.” 

Sargent says she has never used cannabis and didn’t expect, prior to running for state office, to be championing the legalization of it. But in Dane County—which includes her Madison district—64.5 percent of voters in 2014 approved a nonbinding, advisory-only referendum asking the state to legalize marijuana.

That request has gone unheeded in the state Capitol building, however. Acheson is encouraged that the hemp cultivation and CBD oil-related bills were signed into law, but, he says, that’s only a start, not the place to stop the debate. He’s looking for Wisconsin to legalize medical use of the whole plant, so ingesting it—by smoking, vaping by use of e-cigarettes or consuming cannabis edibles—can deliver to users the full benefit, or “entourage effect,” of marijuana’s many cannabinoid compounds. 

Acheson ran Peacefully Organic Produce, a community-supported agriculture operation near Waunakee—until his injuries and loss of farmland to development forced him to close the business, which employed other veterans. As a Wisconsin Farmers Union delegate, he spoke at the organization’s state convention in favor of resolutions for lifting the bans on industrial hemp and medicinal marijuana, both of which passed.

He asks how nearly 30 other states could legalize medical marijuana, but Wisconsin has resisted doing the same. “Red states have figured this out. And we can’t? What’s standing in our wayThat’s the real question that needs to be asked,” Acheson says.

The limited legislative debate on the issue is frustrating, he says. But just as adamant as Acheson is about legalization are those who oppose it.

Prohibition Stands

According to an October 2017 Gallup poll, 64 percent of Americans support full legalization of marijuana—the highest percentage in nearly 50 years of polling by the organization. And for the first time, a majority of Republicans—51 percent—said they support legalizing marijuana, up nine percentage points from just a year ago. Seventy-two percent of Democrats and 67 percent of independents also favor legal weed, Gallup found. 

Yet Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in early 2017 told the Wisconsin Radio Network he didn’t think there was interest in legalization within the state Legislature, “regardless of party.” He said he considers marijuana a gateway to harder drugs and doesn’t want to “open the door” for medical use of pot because he said studies show “there are much more viable alternatives with the health care community to provide assistance.”

Other lawmakers have expressed similar concerns, including fear that giving young people easier access to marijuana will get them hooked on pot and that marijuana use would result in more people driving while high and causing fatal collisions.

The last time a medical marijuana bill received a hearing in the state Legislature was in 2009. It took place before a standing-room-only crowd at the Assembly Health and Human Services Committee meeting chaired by Leah Vukmir, R-Brookfield. The testimony went on for several hours, mostly in support of the bill. During that hearing, Vukmir called the proposal, sponsored by Democratic senators Jon Erpenbach and Mark Pocan, a “façade you’re putting forth using people dying of cancer and other illnesses as your shield” and “nothing more than a ruse for you to move toward full legalization of marijuana.” 

Erpenbach says his longtime support has been for medical use of marijuana only. His bill in the 2008-09 legislative session died in Vukmir’s committee nonetheless. His 2017 bill, which would allow patients to access medical marijuana with a doctor’s recommendation, was assigned to the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services, again chaired Vukmir. It has not gotten a hearing, and the current legislative session ends in March.

According to Acheson, Vukmir recently reiterated her view that medical marijuana bills are a “ruse” at a Nov. 12 meeting of UW–Madison College Republicans that he attended. Madison Magazine sought confirmation from Vukmir’s office but did not receive a response by this story’s publication deadline.

Although recent public polling of Wisconsinites shows increasing support for legalization of recreational marijuana, Erpenbach says, “I don’t think the state overall is there yet.”

The fact that Erpenbach’s medical marijuana bill has gone nowhere legislatively since he reintroduced it a year ago indicates that Republicans aren’t “there yet” either. 

“If this were about partisan tax policy, I’d expect that. But on this issue, I don’t get it,” Erpenbach says. “There are people in every corner of the state—law-abiding citizens, including conservatives—who have been touched by family members in chronic pain and who whole-heartedly support this.” 

Risky Business

Under federal law, marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. That lumps cannabis in with heroin, ecstasy and LSD as drugs “with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Efforts to remove marijuana from the list of Schedule 1 drugs—which even U.S. Sen. Glenn Grothman of Wisconsin, a conservative Republican, said earlier this year he supports—have so far been unsuccessful.

Dr. Angela Janis, co-director of mental health services and director of psychiatric services at the University of Wisconsin–Madison University Health Services, says Schedule 1 classification of marijuana makes it difficult to legally study the drug, so its benefits and risks to one’s health aren’t fully understood.

It is known, Janis says, that about 9 percent of people who use cannabis become dependent on it. “That’s the same as coffee. For alcohol it’s 15 percent,” Janis says. “But of those who get a 30-day prescription for opioids, 30 percent will go on to abuse opioids. That’s astronomical.”

Janis says she’s most concerned about the use of cannabis by young people. “Early studies have shown that heavy use in adolescence can reduce IQ into adulthood,” Janis says. “However, for use after age 18, there are no [lasting] cognitive deficits. Those are restored once people stop using.” Pot smoking by college students can hurt their grades and potentially set them back careerwise, she says.

Monica Yeazel, a UW–Madison trained pharmacist now working at a legal medical cannabis dispensary in Minnesota, says, “Legalizing recreational cannabis in any form is far less harmful than legalized cigarettes or alcohol.”

Pro-pot activists say states—like Minnesota, which has legalized only medical marijuana—can regulate marijuana the way they oversee alcohol sales and enforce laws against public consumption and drunk driving. But law enforcement officials remain worried that legalization would lead to more people driving under the influence of marijuana or experiencing cannabis as a gateway drug to harder and more dangerous narcotics. 

If Wisconsin were to pass a bill to legalize medical marijuana, it would need to provide assurances to physicians that they would not be risking the loss of their state licenses to practice medicine if they certify that their patients could benefit from using cannabis.

That’s the contention of Marquette law professor Barnes. “It’s a risky business. I’m surprised so many states have gone this way,” she says.

Yet Barnes says she can see that “lawmakers and others on both sides of the aisle want to regulate and tax it.” Such a law would need to establish a network of publicly run or state-licensed private marijuana dispensaries and that would require a detailed plan, Barnes says. But once a plan is developed and the state is in the marijuana business, there’s no returning to prohibition. 

“You can’t come back from that,” she says.

Prosecution

State legalization of marijuana possession and use eliminates the grounds for local law enforcement to prosecute citizens, says David Schwartz, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison Law School. However, states can’t change federal law, which considers it a crime to possess or distribute marijuana. But operators of state-legalized marijuana dispensaries have felt more comfortable operating in the open since former president Barack Obama’s Deputy Attorney General James Cole, in 2013, issued a memo to U.S. attorneys suggesting that they not prosecute state-licensed marijuana suppliers. 

Current U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions opposes marijuana legalization and once called marijuana addiction “only slightly less awful” than heroin addiction. Surprisingly, perhaps, Session initially agreed with the Cole memo that the Justice Department doesn’t have the resources to enforce marijuana laws in states that legalize it. But in January, he rescinded the memo. It’s too early to know what impact it will have on state-licensed marijuana programs.

“No matter what happens at the state level, marijuana possession remains illegal throughout the country under federal law,” Schwartz says. “But people are getting away with violating the law because of scaled back, low or nonenforcement at the federal level.”

Legalizing pot possession is framed by some advocates as a social justice issue. Almost 90 percent of the 8 million marijuana arrests made between 2001 and 2010 were for simple possession. 

In Madison, penalties for private possession of small amounts of pot were eliminated by a binding referendum in 1977—the nation’s second-oldest municipal decriminalization law still on the books. Ordinance 23.20 allows possession of up to 112 grams (just less than 4 ounces) of marijuana or 28 grams of cannabis resin in a private place. That ordinance has undergone only minor changes in the 30 years since it was enacted, Madison City Attorney Michael May says. 

May says he supports greater legalization of casual marijuana use on the state and federal levels. “The war on drugs, particularly on marijuana, is a complete failure and wastes billions of dollars annually that could be spent on better programs, such as drug prevention and treatment, and mental health services,” May says.

Public possession without permission from a physician, however, is still illegal in Madison and subject to a $124 fine. In 2017, 182 cases of public pot possession went to municipal court—“the vast majority of which were simple payment of the fine,” May says. Madison Police Department records show that a total of 222 people were arrested for marijuana-involved offenses in 2017—less than half of the 553 cases in 2013.

The Great Midwest Marijuana Festival attracts thousands of people every fall—many of whom openly smoke pot as they listen to speakers on the Library Mall and march up State Street to the state Capitol—yet the event results in very few tickets or arrests. No citations for pot possession were issued last year at the three-day event, according to the MPD.

Racial Disparity

More likely to be arrested are people selling pot in public places, particularly in minority neighborhoods in Madison and elsewhere. They’re the ones paying the heaviest price for the continued criminalization of marijuana, says Ja’Mel Ware, the African American founder of Intellectual Ratchet, a Madison company that puts on events geared toward students and professional people of color.

“There are disproportionate cases of black men getting sent away for years for use of a plant, while other people in other states are profiting off of [selling it legally],” says Ware, who started using cannabis as a teenager to counter the nausea and appetite suppression that were side effects of a cocktail of drugs he took to treat his HIV. He was born HIV positive to parents who both died of AIDS. His father passed away when he was 15 months old and his mother died when he was 15 years old—a year after Ware first smoked pot. He says he had that initial experience with his mother.

Ware says he supports, although not actively, the movement to legalize marijuana in Wisconsin. He says he smokes pot regularly but is not fearful of arrest, if only because so many other people do, too.

According to a 2013 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, African Americans nationally were 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for having weed than whites, despite comparable rates of usage by blacks and whites. 

In Madison, the disparity in arrest rates across racial lines has been even more stark. African Americans were arrested and cited for marijuana offenses at more than 10 times the rate of whites, according to an analysis of police drug arrests by the Wisconsin State Journal in 2014.

While only 7 percent of Madison residents are black, African Americans accounted for 50 to 55 percent of all marijuana-related arrests and charges since at least 2013—even as the total number of marijuana cases has dropped by 50 percent over the past five years, according to MPD records provided to Madison Magazine.

Confronted in 2014 with the disproportionate number of marijuana cases involving African Americans, Madison Police Chief Mike Koval declared the enforcement of marijuana laws as an “abject failure”—an acknowledgment he’d like to see the state make, too. Koval told Madison Magazine that he still believes there should be state-regulated stores where pot could be legally bought for recreational use. He says the revenue the state would derive from marijuana dispensaries could fund treatment for people addicted to harder drugs, such as heroin, and keep them out of the criminal justice system.

Koval’s stance puts him at odds with the Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association, which is on record opposing Rep. Sargent’s marijuana legalization bill. (Meanwhile, the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin is the only organization registered in favor of the bill.)

But until the day marijuana is legalized in Wisconsin, Madison police officers will enforce the laws currently on the books, especially against those “who would exploit others in the manufacturing and distribution of illegal drugs,” Koval wrote on his blog in 2014.

A bill introduced this session by Rep. Adam Jarchow, R-Balsam Lake, would significantly reduce state penalties for possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana. But the legislation would leave in place harsh punishment for anyone caught selling the drug. 

Medical Marijuana

Acheson, the Iraq War veteran and former area farmer, says he supports the state Senate bill authored by Erpenbach, D-Middleton, to legalize medical marijuana in Wisconsin. 

Acheson, co-founder of Wisconsin Veterans for Compassionate Care, says he takes every opportunity to testify on the issue, and he encourages other veterans to do the same. 

He cites recent investigative reporting by Newsweek that revealed veterans are overprescribed opioids and are twice as likely to die from accidental overdoses than nonveterans. 

Wisconsin lost 133 veterans to suicide in 2014, according to a report released in 2016 by the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs. “Many of those were opiate related,” Acheson says. “If we legalize a medical cannabis program in Wisconsin, we’re going to have a disproportionate net positive effect on the veteran community by reducing suicides and accidental overdoses immediately.”

Acheson bases this prediction on studies showing significant reductions in opiate use by people who switch to cannabis to treat their chronic pain. According to a published study in the June 2016 issue of The Journal of Pain, researchers at the University of Michigan School of Public Health found a dramatic 64 percent decrease in opioid use by patients who accessed a medical cannabis dispensary in Ann Arbor. The patients who replaced opioids with cannabis also experienced fewer side effects and a 45 percent improvement in their quality of life.

Janis, the mental health and psychiatric services co-director at UW–Madison University Health Services, says the evidence is clear that cannabis can alleviate pain and restore appetite, both of which plague cancer patients.

“I think we have a more reasonable knowledge base about this substance than we do probably about any new pharmaceutical coming out,” Janis says.

In the six states and Washington, D.C., where recreational marijuana usage is currently legal (Massachusetts will join these states in July), lawmakers first made medical marijuana available. Now 29 states allow their citizens, with recommendations from their doctors, to use medical marijuana for a variety of health conditions. Another 18 states have legalized CBD oil as a medication. Wisconsin joined the CBD oil-legal states when Walker signed a bill approved by the Legislature  (unanimously by the Assembly and by a 31-1 vote in the Senate) in April.

CBD Oil Allowed

Among the parents who last year testified in favor of the CBD oil bill—before it was signed into law in April 2017—was Charlotte Deleste, a news anchor with WISC-TV (which is owned, along with Madison Magazine, by Morgan Murphy Media). Deleste’s 12-year-old son, Gio, has a rare form of childhood epilepsy that was triggering as many as 80 seizures a day after his first of three brain surgeries. Gio still suffers from seizures in his sleep, but they’re less frequent since he started taking a hemp-derived brand of CBD oil—coincidentally named Charlotte’s Web—shipped from Colorado.

Every time Deleste leans over to pick up a package of CBD oil delivered to her doorstep, she says she half expects federal drug enforcement agents to swoop down and arrest her. It remains a violation of federal law for Deleste and other parents to receive CBD oil through the mail, but no one expects federal prosecution of families like hers.

“My son is not getting high. I’m just trying to save his life,” Deleste says, adding that parents will “go to the ends of the earth for our children.” 

So Deleste welcomed the news that the Legislature in November lifted the prohibition on growing industrial hemp, from which CBD oil can be made. The Legislature quickly and unanimously approved (by a 33-0 vote in the Senate and, two days later, by a 92-0 vote in the Assembly) to allow farmers to cultivate industrial hemp. 

The Legislature lifted the prohibition on growing hemp, a variety of cannabis sativa with 0.3 percent or less THC, but did not explicitly permit making CBD oil from it. Yet shortly before the Legislature passed the hemp farming bill, the St. Croix Chippewa tribe of northwest Wisconsin declared its intention to start growing hemp for CBD oil production whether or not it had permission from the state. 

Abbie Testaberg is another advocate for the medicinal properties of cannabis oil. Her path to advocacy for medical marijuana was relatively recent, but no less passionate due to personal circumstances.

She earned a theater degree from UW–Madison and, with her mother, ran Dish and the Spoon Café in her hometown of River Falls for a decade before selling the business last year. In addition to running Whole Plant Technologies with her husband, she’s raising two young boys, ages 5 and 7, who have challenging health issues—some symptoms of which Abbie believes could be alleviated if medical marijuana were available in Wisconsin.

The Testabergs’ youngest son suffers from neurogenic bowel and bladder issues due to being born with spina bifida. Testaberg says the standard oral medication he takes has serious side effects. But catheterized cannabis oil, she believes, might be easier on his bladder—if that type of oil existed, let alone for children. 

“I actually created my company to get medicine made,” she says. “I have been utilizing my business to create relationships with really smart industry people” to make the medicine that would benefit her son.  

She runs Whole Plant Technologies with her husband, Jody Testaberg, who has 20 years of experience in cannabis cultivation. She says Jody’s interest in growing cannabis developed as a teenager and led him to Southeast Asia, India and, eventually, to California, where he worked in a medical cannabis cooperative.

“As soon as there was a place to do it in a legal way, he was there,” Abbie says of her husband.
By the time state lawmakers agree to legalize cannabis—if they do—the Testabergs may not be here anymore. Unable to find a Wisconsin factory owner to manufacture grow trays for their company because of the stigma—and illegality—of marijuana, the Testabergs found a partner with a factory in the state of Washington. 

The Testabergs operate cannabis-related projects in Oregon, California, Arkansas, Canada and now Wisconsin (thanks to the green lighting of hemp cultivation). While the Testabergs remain uncertain where they’ll reside as a family, Abbie is certain “it will be in a state or country where cannabis is legal medically and for adult use.” 

Cannabis Dispensaries

Republican and Democratic lawmakers have barely begun talking to one another about the issue. So Barnes, the law professor at Marquette University, says there’s no telling when or if Wisconsin lawmakers will set up a legalization regime for marijuana. 

“There isn’t a plan yet saying this is how we’ll handle it. That’s a lot of work. And we have an administration that simply will not do that.”

If Wisconsin lawmakers want a road map for legalizing medical marijuana, they need not look far for detailed directions. Across the border in Minnesota, a state-administered network of cannabis dispensaries exists. And one of those dispensaries employs a former Madison-area pharmacist.   

In 2016, Monica Yeazel joined LeafLine Labs to administer medical cannabis to patients who qualify through the Minnesota Department of Health. Yeazel, who earned her pharmacy degree at UW–Madison, says she is “designing therapeutic approaches to alleviate the symptoms” of her patients using cannabis, and it is “the most fulfilling work of my professional career.”

It’s cannabis oil—not the smokeable flower or “bud” form or edibles—that Yeazel provides as a medical cannabis pharmacist in the Twin Cities. 

Only three states—Minnesota, Connecticut and New York—require state-licensed pharmacists on the premises of medical cannabis dispensaries. And the medications they dispense “are formulated to exacting standards and tested by a third-party lab,” Yeazel said.

Yeazel says she is unfamiliar with the medical marijuana bills authored by Democratic lawmakers in Wisconsin. But she says, “The structure of the Minnesota medical cannabis program is probably the best model for medical cannabis. … It is absolutely reproducible, and I definitely think Wisconsin could and should adopt this model.”

In 2010, Wisconsin law enforcement arrested twice as many people for simple possession of marijuana than their counterparts in Minnesota—four years before Minnesota legalized medical marijuana.

Full legalization

Madison marijuana advocate Gary Storck, who says he started using cannabis as a 17-year-old in 1972 to treat his congenital glaucoma, heart issues and other maladies, likes the comprehensive nature of Rep. Sargent’s bill to legalize both medical and recreational marijuana. But he knows this is the third such bill Sargent has introduced since she was elected to the Assembly in 2013. None of her bills has received a public hearing or vote by her colleagues. 

Over the past several decades, Storck has watched, assisted and documented many attempts at legalizing cannabis. In the late 1990s, he co-founded the nonprofit “Is My Medicine Legal Yet?”—or IMMLY. Although he’s no longer involved with the group, it’s a question he continues to ask. 

Storck—also a founder of the Madison chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws—is now a prolific writer for his website, Cannabadger.com. It was there that he published a long and sharp critique written by Abbie Testaberg of Sargent’s legalization bill. Testaberg, mentioned earlier, is a Wisconsin native and co-owner of a cannabis-related company now based in Bend, Oregon, which sells and installs a proprietary grow tray system for indoor marijuana growers. 

Testaberg supports full legalization of marijuana, although she says she only recently became an outspoken advocate for legalizing pot. She says it makes sense to first give access to people who would benefit most. That list includes people at the end of life and in need of pain relief; cancer patients with suppressed appetites; and children with epilepsy, for whom cannabis oil can reduce the frequency of seizures. 

But as a cannabis industry entrepreneur, Testaberg says she’s concerned that the regulation Sargent outlines in her bill would be onerous and would result in medical cannabis more expensive than pot on the black market.

Testaberg says any state-licensed and regulated cannabis industry needs to have safeguards built into it. “I’m passionate about safe production, cultivation, processing, packaging and testing [of the final product],” she says. “But the regulations can’t be so egregious that we simply can’t sell [cannabis] to patients at an appropriate price point.”

Storck says the bill would get marked up and changed through the legislative process—if it were to get committee hearings and be subjected to public debate.

He also notes that the marijuana legalization debate peaked in 2009 when Democrats narrowly controlled both houses of the Legislature. At the time, Storck helped draft the Jacki Rickert Medical Marijuana Act—named after his activist friend and IMMLY co-founder—introduced by then senators Mark Pocan, D-Madison, and Erpenbach.

“It was really great how we were on the upswing then and we were finding support,” Storck says. “I was reaching out to state groups, like Wisconsin nurses, who had always been supportive, and hospice groups. Everything was building,” Storck said.

The bill died in a Republican-led committee.

Cracks in the GOP Wall

In January 2017, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington, told reporters he would be “open” to allowing doctors to prescribe cannabis to patients “with a sincere medical need.” Vos touched on the issue again in late December, saying he didn’t expect such a bill to advance in the statehouse so long as it remained illegal on the federal level. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, responding with surprise to Vos’ initial comments, said he did not believe in legalizing medical marijuana. 

Soon after that, Erpenbach reintroduced his medical marijuana bill, this time calling it the Compassionate Cannabis Care Act. More than a year later, the bill still lacks any Republican co-sponsors.

Last August, Rep. Sargent introduced Assembly Bill 482, her third but most comprehensive bill laying out a framework for legalizing medical and recreational marijuana. This bill, like the ones she put forward in 2014 and 2015, has not received a committee hearing this session, which ends in March.

The state Department of Revenue estimated that AB 482 would result in $138 million in taxes and fees in its third year. The cost to the state to run the program would be comparatively small—$346,000 to set up the process, $156,000 to administer it annually and $1.2 million in salaries for 10 excise tax agents, a supervisor and a criminal investigator.

In the fiscal estimate released last September, the revenue department projected that Wisconsin pot users would buy 45 percent less than the amount sold in Colorado, where recreational cannabis was legalized in 2012.

“I think that fiscal analysis is anemic,” says Sargent, arguing that much greater tax revenues should be expected from legalization here. Having said that, she points out that the numbers in the analysis are “huge”: a predicted $60.5 million in state excise and sales taxes and fees in 2019 (if cannabis were legalized this year through her bill), $109.5 million in 2020 and $138 million in 2021.

“If what we’re always talking about here in … [the state Capitol] is economic stimulus, I can’t think of a better plan,” Sargent says, noting that her bill would give preference to Wisconsin-owned businesses for the first five years after implementation.

The prospect of any form of marijuana legalization in Wisconsin may remain dim unless and until Democrats take back control of the Legislature and the governor’s office. Still, the Republican majority did pass hemp and CBD oil bills that Walker signed into law. And there’s further movement from some Wisconsin GOP leaders suggesting that the federal policy on marijuana ought to be changed and perhaps citizens should be allowed to use cannabis for medicinal purposes.

“It’s not a matter of if this is going to happen [in Wisconsin]. It’s more a matter of when it’s going to happen, and what it’s going to look like,” Sargent says.

Joel Patenaude is associate editor of Madison Magazine.

For more about marijuana in Wisconsin, click here to see a timeline of Wisconsin's history of marijuana or click here to learn more about a recent law passed relating to hemp growth in Wisconsin.


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