Reactions to Gov. Tony Evers’ proposal to decriminalize marijuana and legalize it for medical use are mixed among area legislators, with opinions split mostly along party lines.
Evers’ proposal would decriminalize possessing, manufacturing or distributing 25 grams or less of marijuana and allow physicians to prescribe it to treat cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain and other conditions. Evers, a Democrat, will include the proposal in his 2019-21 state budget, which he will submit this week.
Local Democrats almost universally support the decriminalization proposal, saying the move is in step with public opinion in the state.
“The governor’s proposal is clearly well within the mainstream of where Rock County and Wisconsin is at right now, and I would hope that we could start to find bipartisan support,” said State Rep. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit.
State Rep. Debra Kolste, D-Janesville, claimed it’s “almost ludicrous” that recreational marijuana is legal in some states but not others and said Wisconsin is “making criminals” of people who might not be breaking the law elsewhere.
State Sen. Janis Ringhand, D-Evansville, was less eager to endorse decriminalization but suspects she’ll eventually support it. She said she plans to discuss the details with local officials, such as the sheriffs of Rock and Green counties.
Republican state Rep. Amy Loudenbeck split from local Democrats, saying decriminalizing the possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana is “a nonstarter.” She pointed to Illinois, which has made possessing 10 grams or less of marijuana a civil offense. She said Evers’ proposal seems “awfully liberal” by comparison.
“It’s more than just decriminalization. It’s opening the door to full legalization,” Loudenbeck said.
Loudenbeck argued Evers’ proposals should be introduced in a bill and debated in committees. That would allow deeper policy discussions, she said.
Loudenbeck is open to some forms of medical marijuana, which local Democrats largely support. She has concerns about how medical dispensaries would operate but agreed cannabidiol, a cannabis extract used to treat epilepsy, has “more potential and application.” Evers’ proposal would allow the possession of cannabidiol without a prescription.
Kolste, who was a medical technician for almost 40 years, is the outlier on medical marijuana and has been hesitant to support it. She is concerned patients would abuse the system to get medication and said studies on medical marijuana are slim.
“I’m not sure that the medical community is overly enthusiastic about having medical marijuana,” Kolste said.
Kolste acknowledged the November advisory referendums on marijuana across the state that passed overwhelmingly. But she said she doesn’t know how she would vote on a medical marijuana proposal right now.
Evers has said his marijuana proposals address gaping racial disparities in Wisconsin’s arrests. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that just under 7 percent of Wisconsin’s population is black, yet 43 percent of the state’s adult inmates are black men, according to the state Department of Corrections.
Loudenbeck is the vice chair of the powerful Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee, which will review and amend the governor’s budget before it is voted on by the Republican-controlled Legislature. She said the proposal likely will not pass in its current form.
But it could in a “heavily-amended form,” she said.
“(Cannabidiol) would be the most likely to get some traction. Medical marijuana is going to have to be tightened up a lot, and decriminalization may likely have to be removed to get majority support,” Loudenbeck said.
“(Decriminalization) seems to be the lightning rod issue that may overshadow the real policy debate.”
Nine states have legalized recreational marijuana, and more than 30 states and the District of Columbia have some form of medical marijuana.