Several local lawmakers have stiffened their support for legalizing marijuana after the Tuesday passage of all marijuana advisory referendums statewide, including Rock County.
Nearly 1 million Wisconsinites voted in favor of legalizing recreational or medical marijuana through advisory referendums in 16 counties—liberal and conservative alike—and two cities. All soared to victory with between 60 percent and 90 percent of votes.
A handful of area legislators told The Gazette in August they were awaiting the results of the Rock County referendum to mold their legislative stances on marijuana. Last week, some said Tuesday’s results sent a message to lawmakers.
State Sen. Janis Ringhand, D-Evansville, said “it’s definitely time to move forward” with a medical marijuana bill in the Legislature, and she would be willing to be a co-sponsor. That comes after she told The Gazette in August she was in the middle of the road on marijuana and would let Tuesday’s vote sway her.
Ringhand said she was less eager to back legalizing recreational weed and would consider supporting a bill only if its provisions mirror those of Rock County’s advisory referendum.
Rock County’s referendum—which passed 46,669 to 20,769—read: “Should cannabis be legalized for adult use, taxed and regulated like alcohol, with the proceeds from the taxes used for education, health care and infrastructure?”
In a statement Thursday, state Rep. Don Vruwink, D-Milton, said he would get on board with a medical marijuana bill if it “allows doctors to prescribe marijuana to ease the suffering of people with debilitating illnesses.”
State Rep. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit, has championed decriminalizing marijuana since being elected to the Assembly in 2014. He has yet to publicly support legalizing recreational marijuana, but Tuesday’s wide margin of victory in Rock County and across the state left him open to a recreational marijuana bill.
“We’ve sort of had a clear sense in the past the public supported medical and decriminalization,” Spreitzer said. “For me, the next step is to dig into the details and try to talk to some people. … Certainly, it was not a close vote.
“My general approach would be to support any bill that makes sense. That could be multiple bills. Certainly, I would support decriminalization. … That would not stop me from cosponsoring a bill that goes farther.”
Splitting from the pack of local Democrats is state Rep. Deb Kolste, D-Janesville. Before Tuesday’s vote, she had said the results would mold her support for or opposition to marijuana. Now, she says she backs regulating marijuana like alcohol but “has concerns” about medical marijuana.
Among those concerns is an abuse of the medication, she said. Still, she would likely vote for a medical marijuana bill because of the emphatic support from residents Tuesday.
“We had a huge number of people vote, and the majority said this issue is important,” Kolste said. “I just think if this many people are invested in putting their mark on the ballot, we ought to take a look at it.”
For Democrats, the trick with legalizing marijuana in the Legislature will be garnering Republican support and co-sponsorship. Gov.-elect Tony Evers, a Democrat, has said he supports legalizing medical marijuana and would sign a bill, but the measure would have to survive both chambers of the Legislature, where Republicans have the majority.
State Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, has introduced a full-legalization bill in each of the past three years, and she said last week she will introduce a new iteration in the 2019-20 session, which begins in January. She said the number of co-sponsors for each bill has grown, but no Republican has signed on.
Sargent hopes to lure Republican sponsorship given the overwhelming support of the advisory referendums in conservative areas—the city of Waukesha passed a medical marijuana advisory referendum with 76 percent of the vote—and she believes Democrats will make bipartisan gains this year.
State Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, has typically shied away from supporting any kind of marijuana legalization, but she called Tuesday’s results “interesting.” It’s still “too soon” for her to shape her opinion on recreational marijuana, she said, but she seemed to indicate an openness to medical marijuana.
“If somebody is terminally ill ... and prescribed marijuana, that is a very, very different argument than recreational use,” she said.
Recreational marijuana on the other hand?
“I’m open to having that conversation but still very skeptical,” she said.