Wisconsin Finally Ready to Jump Aboard the Cannabis Legalization Train?

WI Gov. Tony Evers hopes his newly-introduced cannabis legalization legislation will find success despite historic Republican pushback.

Cannabis legalization in Wisconsin
Photo by Michelle Stocker
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  • Governor of Wisconsin Tony Evers has announced legislation to legalize medical and recreational cannabis in the state as part of the budget.
  • The legislation is predicted to generate over $160 million that could help fund various public services and provide support for disadvantaged groups in rural areas.
  • The proposal faces almost certain rejection by Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled Senate.
  • Wisconsin is one of only a few states in the country that hasn’t legalized cannabis, though CBD is legal for medical use.
  • In referendums held in 2018, 16 counties and 2 cities in the state voted to support medical or recreational cannabis reforms.  Over 80% of the electorate voted to legalize medical cannabis in a 2019 poll, a significant increase from a similar 2014 poll.
  • Rising activity from cannabis reform campaign groups has been attributed to this increase.
  • Evans’ plans include introducing a permit requirement for cannabis retailers and distributors.  It will also allow residents to grow their own cannabis plants.

Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers (D) has announced plans to introduce legislation to legalize cannabis for medical and recreational use. 

Wisconsin is among very few states in the country that hasn’t legalized cannabis for use of any kind. While CBD is legal in the state for medical conditions, its use is restricted and there are currently no guidelines as to which conditions qualify for CBD treatment. 

There are 15 US states with legalized recreational cannabis and 35 states with legalized medical cannabis.

Marijuana legalization map in the U.S.
Map of marijuana legality by state. Credit: DISA

Wisconsin’s recreational cannabis state budget confirmed

In a speech made on 17th February, 2021, the governor seeks to put a 15% wholesale tax on cannabis with an additional 10% retail tax on marijuana sales. Medical cannabis, however, will not be subjected to sales tax.  

It’s predicted that tax revenue from cannabis sales will generate around $165 million, with roughly $70-80 million earmarked for the state’s rural communities, whose schools, in particular, have been affected by a lack of funding

Of the $70-$80 million in tax revenue for community reinvestment, Evers is planning to use:

  • $35 million in school sparsity grants
  • $10 million for grants to boost diversity and promote equity and inclusion
  • $10 million for equity action plan grants
  • $10 million for community health worker grants
  • $5 million for businesses in communities facing (or have faced) injustices

Evers’ plan stipulates that cannabis retailers and distributors would need to obtain special permits from the Department of Revenue and the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. These agencies would be tasked with testing cannabis products for potency, as well as contaminants (including pesticides) and mold, which will ensure high levels of safety for consumers.  

The proposed legislation would also allow Wisconsin residents to possess a maximum of two ounces of cannabis on their person and grow up to six plants for personal use.

Support for Minorities and Other Marginalized Groups

The legislation aims to support women, communities of color, and veterans in these communities. All of whom have been identified by the governor’s office as at risk of being disproportionately discriminated against by Wisconsin’s current cannabis law enforcement.

Marijuana arrests chart white vs. black
Rates of Black and White marijuana possession arrests per 100k people

“Too many people, often persons of color, spend time in our criminal justice system just for possessing small amounts of marijuana,” Evers said in a statement on the matter in 2019.  “That doesn’t make our communities safer or stronger.”

In 2019, a Marquette University Law School poll indicated that 59% of Wisconsinites supported recreational cannabis legalization and 83% backed legalization for medical purposes. It showed an 18% jump in approval for recreational legalization compared to a similar poll in 2014, where only 41% were in favor.

This change is attributed to increased campaigning from, amongst others, cannabis reform group, National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).  

In 2019, executive director of Wisconsin NORML, Alan Robinson said, “We want to impress upon them [Wisconsin lawmakers] that their constituents matter; their constituents want cannabis.”

The Arc of Wisconsin’s History Doesn’t Favor Cannabis Legalization (But Hope Still Remains)

Unfortunately, there is little hope that the proposal will make it past Wisconsin’s Senate. Two years ago, Evers proposed comparatively conservative cannabis reforms, which were promptly blocked by Republican Senators.

A large percentage of Republicans across the US remain skeptical of cannabis reform, especially when it comes to recreational legalization. South Carolina is a prime example of this. Republican state officials have denied recreational and medical cannabis numerous times, much to the despair and frustration of pro-cannabis democrats. 

Many Republicans (and some Democrats, of course) are simply pushing aside the notion that cannabis can help so many, preferring to follow outdated and regressive anti-cannabis sentiments. 

Despite this, Evers remains undeterred.

“Legalizing and taxing marijuana in Wisconsin — just like we do already with alcohol — ensures a controlled market and safe product are available for both recreational and medicinal users,” Evers said in a statement on February 7. “[The proposal] can open the door for countless opportunities for us to reinvest in our communities and create a more equitable state.”

Some Republicans Embrace Cannabis Legalization (A Turning of the Tide?)

Three dissenting Republican Wisconsin Senators: Mary Felzkowski, Kathy Bernier, and Robin Vos are all in support of medical cannabis reform, indicating a small but hopeful shift in attitude among lawmakers in the state.