Timeline: Wisconsin’s Cannabis Story
The history of pot in Wisconsin
Hemp is first grown in Wisconsin as an experiment near the then Asylum Farm at the State Hospital for the Insane at Mendota and Wisconsin State Prison in Waupun. This is done through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Fiber Investigations created by Secretary Jeremiah Rusk, a former governor of Wisconsin. Hemp fiber is used to make binder twine and rope needed by the U.S. military.
With federal promotion, purchasing and price supports for production, Wisconsin is the U.S. leader in hemp cultivation. In 1920, more acreage is dedicated to hemp–concentrated in Dodge, Green Lake, Fond du Lac and Racine counties–than in all other states combined.
The U.S. Marihuana Tax Act required farmers to obtain stamps to farm hemp.
Farmers in Janesville and Clinton pledge to raise hemp as a “war crop” to support the U.S. efforts during WWII. But by 1948, the U.S. government gets out of the hemp business, ceasing to buy it and ending the price support program. U.S. Sen. Robert M. La Follette Jr. wins a short-lived exemption for hemp farmers from provisions in the Marihuana Tax Act, which doesn’t distinguish between the illegal drug and the nonpsychoactive hemp plant.
Wisconsin processes the last commercial crop of hemp fiber in the U.S.
Rep. Lloyd Barbee of Milwaukee introduces AB 1023 to legalize cannabis possession and sales. “The best cannabis bill I ever read is also the simplest,” wrote activist Gary Storck. “Somehow it got a floor vote and was defeated 94-1 on Nov. 13, 1969.”
Congress passes the Controlled Substances Act, classifying marijuana as a Schedule 1 illegal drug.
The first Great Midwest Marijuana Harvest Festival is held in Madison, started by yippie and cannabis activist Ben Masel and organized by him until his death in 2011. The 47th annual harvest fest was held Sept. 29-Oct. 1, 2017, on the Library Mall.
Rep. Barbee introduces AB 23 to legalize cannabis by removing all criminal penalties against it in Wisconsin. The bill dies in committee.
On Nov. 2, 1976, Madison voters pass two advisory referendums–one for legalizing marijuana is narrowly approved by 50.05 percent of the vote, the other for decriminalizing possession of small amounts of pot wins with 63 percent in favor. Then on April 5, 1977, 60 percent of Madison voters approve a referendum–this one binding–to decriminalize the drug. The city council follows suit, passing Ordinance 23.20 which eliminated criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of pot in a private place.
The Jacki Rickert Medical Marijuana Act, to legalize medical marijuana, has the support of then Gov. Jim Doyle, but the Legislature fails to deliver it to his desk. Rickert, the wheelchair-bound cannabis activist after whom the bill was named, died Dec. 26, 2017. She was 66.
64.5 percent of Dane County voters approve an advisory referendum to fully legalize marijuana and regulate it like alcohol.
The Menominee Nation in northeast Wisconsin has its industrial hemp crop seized by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents who claimed the plants contained higher than allowable levels of THC, which the tribe disputes. The Menominee sue, arguing the tribe has the right to cultivate industrial hemp under the 2014 federal farm bill. But a judge rules that the federal law doesn’t apply to tribes or in states where hemp cultivation is illegal. The Ho-Chunk Nation tribal government has not acted on a nonbinding referendum its members passed in September 2015 for the legalization and sale of marijuana on tribal lands. Sixty-three percent of 1,607 members voted for the measure. Ho-Chunk officials expect federal authorities would not tolerate marijuana growing by tribes.
The Legislature passes what came to be known as “Lydia’s Law,” allowing possession of cannabidiol or CBD oil with a prescription from a federally licensed physician. Parents seek CBD oil for their children suffering from seizure disorders, but physicians fitting the bill’s requirements couldn’t be found. Lydia Schaeffer, the little girl after whom the law is named, dies a month after the bill becomes law and before her parents can obtain CBD oil from a qualifying physician.
A bill (SB 772) allowing the production and possession of CBD oil for treatment of a seizure disorder is introduced by Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, near the end of the 2015-2016 legislative session, but it stalls in committee.
2017 Cannabis Bills
Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, introduces “The Compassionate Cannabis Care Act” (SB 38) to legalize medical marijuana. Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, follows suit in the Assembly on Feb. 20 with AB 75. Erpenbach’s bill is referred to the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services. Taylor’s is sent to the Assembly Committee on Health. Neither committee schedules a hearing for either bill during the 2017-2018 legislative session. Erpenbach and Taylor pair their bills with a proposed statewide referendum on legalizing medical marijuana (Assembly Joint Resolution 7 and Senate Joint Resolution 10) to appear on the Nov. 2018 ballots. That proposal also dies in committee.
A bill allowing the manufacturing of CBD oil in the state is introduced by Rep. Jimmy Anderson, D-Fitchburg, and Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee.
The Industrial hemp bill (SB 119) is introduced by Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum.
The Monona City Council passes an ordinance that ends municipal fines for possession and consumption of marijuana except for smoking pot in public, similar to a 40-year-old Madison ordinance.
It becomes legal to possess CBD oil with a doctor’s note (2017 Wisconsin Act 4).
Rep. Adam Jarchow, R-Balsam Lake, and Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, introduce mirror bills (AB 409/SB 318) that would decriminalize possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana. The bills are assigned to committees and do not receive hearings.
Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, introduces AB 482 to legalize both medical and recreational cannabis. It is assigned to the Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety, where it languishes.
The St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin announce a plan to start growing hemp and manufacturing CBD oil from it on tribal lands. Even though the St. Croix Chippewa have sovereign authority on their lands, tribal officials say they will comply with federal law and enact controls to ensure no unlawful growing of marijuana takes place on reservation land.
Senate passes the industrial hemp bill on a 31-1 vote.
Assembly passes the industrial hemp bill, 92-0
Gov. Scott Walker signs the hemp bill, a pilot program, into law, allowing hemp to be legally grown in the state for the first time since the 1950s. Wisconsin is now one of at least 34 states to legalize the cultivation of industrial hemp since the 2014 federal farm bill lifted a nationwide ban.
Joel Patenaude is associate editor of Madison Magazine.
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