Published May 2, 2023
By Kyle Jaeger
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Wisconsin Republican lawmakers have removed proposals to legalize marijuana for recreational and medical use from the governor’s executive budget for the 2023-2025 biennial.
At a hearing of the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee on Tuesday, members voted 12-4 to eliminate numerous provisions of Gov. Tony Evers’s (D) budget request, including measures on legalizing, taxing and regulating cannabis in the state.
The move was expected, as the GOP-controlled legislature has previously stripped marijuana reform language from past executive budgets, and top Republican lawmakers warned that any adult-use legalization proposal would not move through the process this year either.
“It is unfortunate that Republicans again chose to ignore the will of the majority and remove cannabis legalization from the state budget,” Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard (D) told Marijuana Moment on Tuesday. “Beyond having an immense fiscal impact on our state, legalizing cannabis addresses Wisconsin’s egregious racial disparities, bolsters our agriculture and farming heritage, safely regulates the existing illicit market, and support entrepreneurships.”
“It’s high time we get this done for the betterment of our state and the people living here,” Agard said.
While Republicans have asserted that removing policy matters from the budget is a matter of fiscal responsibility, Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D) said at Tuesday’s meeting that eliminating marijuana legalization contradicts that objective, preventing the state from reaping the economic benefits of establishing a regulate cannabis market.
“The one thing that we know is that [legalization] will generate up to $44 million in tax revenue,” she said. “Now my Republican colleagues are gonna say that they are all about fiscal responsibility, right? I don’t understand how you can be fiscally responsible, but we’re…leaving $44 million in marijuana expansion on the table.”
Johnson proposed an amendment to GOP motion to reinstate the deleted provisions, including marijuana reform, but it was rejected in a 4-12 vote.
Evers’s plan would have allowed adults 21 and older purchase and possess up to two ounces of marijuana for personal use and grow up to six plants. The Department of Revenue (DOR), which called for legalization in its budget request this year, would have been responsible for regulating the market and issuing cannabis business licenses.
As part of the budget request, Evers’s office estimated that the state would generate $44.4 million in “segregated tax revenue” from legal cannabis, as well as a $10.2 million increase in state general fund tax revenue, in fiscal year 2025 if the reform is enacted.
The governor also included adult-use and medical marijuana legalization in his 2021 budget, as well as decriminalization and medical cannabis in his 2019 proposal, but the conservative legislature has consistently blocked the reform.
While Republican leadership said earlier this year that negotiations over medical cannabis reform would be compromised if Evers moved forward with pushing for recreational legalization in his budget, the GOP caucus has privately met to discuss advancing medical marijuana legislation this session.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) didn’t provide details about the in-the-works proposals when he disclosed the meetings last month, but he said that the goal is to draft something with bipartisan appeal that could be enacted later this year.
Top Democrats—including Agard, the Senate minority leader who’s championed adult-use legalization—are skeptical of the plan.
“We’ve seen this story before—but actions speak louder than words,” she said last month. “Session after session, the Speaker has come forward with empty promises but no tangible steps toward any form of legal cannabis Wisconsin.”
Agard and Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R) also spoke about the prospects of cannabis reform during a webinar hosted by the Wisconsin Policy Forum last month.
Felzkowski, who’s previously sponsored medical cannabis legislation, said that she’s personally “very, very focused on getting medical marijuana across the finish line the session.”
But she told Marijuana Moment that there would be a need to “compromise” on the legislation, which would likely prohibit smoking cannabis and limit the conditions that would make people eligible for medical marijuana.
Wisconsin lawmakers are under pressure to provide some kind of regulated access to cannabis given the rapid regional policy shifts.
A report published in February found that 50 percent of Wisconsinites 21 and older live within 75 minutes of an out-of-state cannabis retailer, such as in Illinois or Michigan. That percentage stands to increase if legislative efforts to legalize marijuana in neighboring Minnesota are successful this session.
Wisconsin residents purchased more than $121 million worth of marijuana from legal retailers in neighboring Illinois in 2022, contributing about $36 million in tax revenue to the state, according to a recent legislative analysis requested by Agard.
Vos, the Assembly speaker, has said that trying to enact adult-use legalization through the budget could “poison the well” in the legislature, jeopardizing talks on medical cannabis. But the leader of the Senate has expressed that he thinks the more modest policy is feasible this session.
“Our caucus is getting pretty close on medical marijuana,” Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R) said. “A lot of our members, who are maybe at a point where they can vote for it now, they just want to make sure it’s regulated well.”
The governor said that he was encouraged by the Senate leader’s remarks about nearing consensus on medical marijuana, and he’s prepared to sign such legislation as long as it’s not “flawed” by including too many restrictions.
Evers didn’t bring up his legalization proposal in his budget speech this year, but he did stress in his inaugural address last month that the state needs to have a “meaningful conversation about treating marijuana much like we do alcohol.”
Some Wisconsin lawmakers have filed bills to legalize cannabis for adult use—and former Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R) has said legalization is “likely” to happen at some point—but the legislature has so far failed to pass even more modest proposals like decriminalization or the legalization of medical cannabis.
Ahead of the November election, Evers met with college students and urged supporters to get engaged and vote, in part to ensure that the state advances marijuana legalization.
If Democrats had won enough seats, it could have also set them up to pass a resolution that the governor introduced to allow citizens to put initiatives on the ballot. Advocates expressed hope that the move could open the door to finally letting voters decide on marijuana legalization, but it’s unlikely that GOP lawmakers will go along with it.
Meanwhile, voters across the state have been making their voices heard on cannabis reform over the past several election cycles. Most recently, voters in three counties and five municipalities across the state approved non-binding advisory questions on their local ballots in support of legalization.
The local votes are largely meant to serve a messaging purpose, providing lawmakers with a clear policy temperature-check among their constituents. But those that were approved will not change any laws by themselves.
A statewide poll released in August found that a solid 69 percent of registered voters in Wisconsin believe that cannabis should be legal. That includes 81 percent of Democrats, 75 percent of independents and 51 percent of Republicans.
Republicans filed a limited medical cannabis bill last year—and it got a hearing on the unofficial marijuana holiday 4/20, but that came too late in the legislative session for lawmakers to actually vote on the measure.
Other GOP members have filed bills to more modestly decriminalize marijuana possession in the state, but none of those proposals advanced.
As it stands, marijuana possession is punishable by a maximum $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail for a first offense. People convicted of a subsequent offense would face a felony charge punishable by a maximum $10,000 fine and up to three and a half years in prison.