MADISON, Wis. - In Wisconsin, public support is high for marijuana, and multiple surrounding states have legalized the drug in some form. News 3 Now is taking a closer look at what it would take to legalize medical marijuana in the Badger State.
Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who has said repeatedly that he is open to medical marijuana, exclusively shared his plans for future legislation with News 3 Now.
"I hope the people who want medical marijuana respect the fact that we are trying, that it’s not an easy task and that we’re going to do our very best," Vos told News 3 Now.
The speaker said he wants the drug to be legalized for medicinal purposes in a limited way that doesn't involve "a marijuana shop on every corner." He has some conditions though. He does not support the current proposal from Republican Sen. Patrick Testin and Democratic Rep. Chris Taylor and Sen. Jon Erpenbach, calling it "way too broad."
Vos said he will not support a bill that allows people to grow weed themselves. Instead, he wants medical marijuana to be supplied and regulated more like a prescription painkiller.
"It shouldn’t be smoked. It should be taken in pill form. It shouldn’t even be edible so a child could get at it," Vos said.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers included a much broader version of medical marijuana legalization in his state budget proposal. The provision was stripped from the state's two-year spending plan by Republican lawmakers.
Evers advocated for possession, manufacturing or distribution of marijuana in amounts of 25 grams or less to be decriminalized. The plan included in his state budget proposal would have established an expungement procedure for individuals convicted of possessing, manufacturing or distributing less than 25 grams of marijuana who have completed their sentence or probation.
Last month, the governor named legalizing medical marijuana as one of his top priorities for the fall session, along with gun control.
For this story, Evers' office referred News 3 Now to his previous comments about medical marijuana, declining to comment on whether the governor would support Vos' plan.
In April, the Marquette University Law School poll showed 83 percent of respondents in Wisconsin support legalizing medical marijuana and 12 percent do not. The support for full marijuana legalization was lower but still a majority, with 59 percent saying the drug should be legal and 36 percent saying it should not be.
Vos admits he has his work cut out for him in convincing other GOP legislators to support medical marijuana, saying he does not believe a majority of Republican representatives currently back the idea.
Their opposition stems in large part due to the concern that legalization for medical use will turn into recreational use, something Vos does not personally support. He also said he does not support decriminalization of marijuana because it is a federal crime.
The Republican leader of the Senate, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, is long opposed to medical marijuana being legalized in Wisconsin.
News 3 Now asked Fitzgerald, who is running for Congress, why he does not support medical marijuana and whether he has discussed the issue with Senate Republicans.
He said in a statement, "We’ve seen that other states with easier access to marijuana have struggled with an increase in emergency room visits and impaired driving accidents. I don’t support these efforts to legalize marijuana in Wisconsin and I think that all of the proposals currently out there will be a tough sell to a majority of my caucus."
In 2020, three out of the four states surrounding Wisconsin will have legalized the drug in some form. Michigan residents voted to legalize marijuana in 2008 through a ballot measure, which is not allowed in Wisconsin. Minnesota's state legislature approved it for medical use in 2014 and Illinois' Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a law this year allowing full legalization after the state legislature approved it. Illinois' law goes into effect in January 2020.
Legalizing medical marijuana in any form will likely face opposition from Wisconsin's medical community.
"The majority of Wisconsin physicians do not favor medical marijuana," said Dr. Molli Rolli, past president of the Wisconsin Medical Society.
The Wisconsin Medical Society, which calls itself "the largest physician advocacy organization in Wisconsin," updated its policies on issues related to marijuana during a meeting of its House of Delegates earlier this year.
The organization, which represents nearly 12,500 doctors, took an official position to oppose medical marijuana and support decriminalization of marijuana in small amounts. The society has no position on recreational marijuana.
Rolli, cites a lack of high-quality research about marijuana because it is still classified as a Schedule I substance under the national Food and Drug Administration's Controlled Substances Act.
As a psychiatrist, Rolli said she would have little interest in prescribing the drug to her patients if it were legalized.
She wants to dispute the idea that medical marijuana is a "baby step" or "compromise" toward full legalization of marijuana and said instead, they are two separate issues.
"(Legalization of medical marijuana) leaves physicians in charge of who gets marijuana and who doesn’t, and we really object to being put in that position. We didn’t ask for it," Rolli said.
Because of the medical community's opposition, Vos said he would like to find a way to leave doctors largely out of the conversation and not have to prescribe it. Instead, he believes patients should be able to make the decision for themselves.
"I think that could be an area where consensus is because it doesn’t involve the medical community other than the diagnosis which they already do," Vos said.
His hope in keeping doctors out of the prescription process also stems from the fact that federal law prohibits the prescription of marijuana. Medical marijuana "prescriptions" are more often called "recommendations" or "referrals."
He doesn't necessarily believe that a medical marijuana card -- as almost every other state with a medical marijuana program has done -- would be necessary, saying that the diagnosis itself should be enough.
As for what conditions Vos' plan would cover? He listed a few examples, such as terminal cancer, Crohn's disease, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and other diagnoses that involve chronic pain.
A way to provide relief
Heather Haas and her husband live in a house in the Town of Roxbury, outside of Sauk City in Dane County. They have five children, one of whom is 10-year-old Halden.
Halden was diagnosed with a severe form of autism and PANDAS/PANS, an autoimmune disorder that attacks his brain. His mom said he has severe anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, anger and aggression. He also injures himself, sometimes to the point of bleeding.
"He is a danger to himself most assuredly and it’s heartbreaking when I have to hold my son down, hold him down to keep him from making himself bleed. That’s the stuff other people don’t know," she said.
A special room in her family's home -- which she calls Halden's "safe place" -- has a trampoline, swings and other obstacles for him to use. For example, she explained, jumping off the swing and hitting the floor helps with sensory inputs in Halden's feet.
She takes him on long drives because they're calming and said it is difficult for him to handle any loud public environments.
As far as medications go, Halden's mom has pretty much attempted it all. He has tried five psych medications and takes two-three medications daily. She said cannabidiol, or CBD, oil helps, but it's not enough.
"Here’s a kid who could have pain in multiple places, which he usually does, and there is not one med that can fix that. Oh yeah, there is. It’s called cannabis," Haas said.
Haas has since become an advocate of medical marijuana, imagining the possibilities it could provide to her family and potential improvements to Halden's quality of life.
"If we had access to medical cannabis, I could actually take him to a zoo. I could take him to a waterpark in the Dells. He loves the wave pools, but it’s too much," she explained.
However, Vos' proposal of a medical marijuana pill is not winning any pointers with the Haas family.
"No. Absolutely not," Haas said at the mention of the proposal.
She believes providing marijuana in a pill form would cause it to lose the natural qualities that would make it helpful to her son. Halden also is unable to swallow pills, she said.
Vos said he would consider drafting a medical marijuana bill in the near future, an unusual move for an Assembly speaker. If not, he said one of his colleagues would likely draft a proposal.
He called it "very unlikely" that medical marijuana will pass this legislative session but said he hopes there will be a good discussion surrounding it in the "next several years."
"I think it’s probably realistic for us to spend this session doing an awful lot of the due diligence to say, 'OK, in our caucus what could be supported?" Vos said.
There is not a specific state the speaker plans on modeling Wisconsin's legislation after, but he did ask the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures to send him data on each state's laws regarding their medical marijuana programs. Vos is the current president of the NCSL.
The medical marijuana laws vary greatly from state to state. For example, Minnesota only allows limited liquid extract products. Puerto Rico does not allow the drug to be smoked. In New York, medical marijuana cannot be smoked and ingested doses are not allowed to contain more than 10 mg of THC, the main psychoactive compound in marijuana that gives the "high." West Virginia does not allow a "whole flower" and does not allow the drug to be smoked, but it can be vaporized.
The speaker may face difficulties in getting Republicans in the state Senate on board.
Testin, a Republican senator from Stevens Point who is sponsoring a medical marijuana bill, wrote a September op-ed about how his grandfather's cancer and chemotherapy treatments led him to seek relief with medical marijuana. Testin wrote that the drug restored his grandfather's appetite and he believes it added months to his grandfather's life.
"I believe both parties in the legislature can come together on this issue and get results for patients in Wisconsin," Testin wrote.
When News 3 Now asked how Vos planned to get Fitzgerald's support on his medical marijuana plan, he pointed out that Fitzgerald's candidacy for Congress could play a role in the conversation.
"Chances are, (Fitzgerald's) not going to be here next session. So, it’ll mean a whole new dynamic with other leaders in the state Senate who perhaps would be more open to (medical marijuana)," Vos said.
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