The Wisconsin Department of Revenue (DOR) is asking the governor to again put recreational and medical marijuana legalization in his forthcoming executive budget, while the State Public Defender (SDP) is separately seeking decriminalization of cannabis possession, according to an overview of state agency budget requests for 2023.
Gov. Tony Evers (D) has already pledged to put legalization in his upcoming budget, despite the GOP-controlled state legislature having repeatedly rejected similar executive requests to create recreational and medical cannabis programs.
According to the new proposal, DOR is seeking the authority to issue retail marijuana permits and levy a 15 percent wholesale and 10 percent retail excise tax on adult-use marijuana sales. The agency estimates such sales would generate annual revenues of $165.8 million for Wisconsin beginning in 2024—money that Democrats complain is lost to the illicit market and legal marijuana programs in neighboring states like Illinois.
DOR is also asking lawmakers to create a medical marijuana registry program through which qualified patients could obtain authorization to purchase cannabis from licensed dispensaries. Patients would not be required to pay taxes on those purchases. DOR’s request stipulated that a qualifying patient should be someone who is at least 18 years old and has been diagnosed by a physician as “having or undergoing a debilitating medical condition or treatment.”
The agency did not ask for funding or full regulatory responsibility to administer and enforce the medical registry program or the taxation of recreational marijuana, but instead indicated it would “like to collaborate with the Governor and other state agencies about the resources needed to manage the program.”
Evers, who won re-election last month, sought to legalize marijuana in his budget last year and campaigned on the issue. His 2019 budget request included decriminalization and medical cannabis legalization, but the GOP-controlled legislature has consistently blocked the provisions.
When the governor included cannabis reform in his biennial proposal in 2021, Republicans ultimately stripped it out. Democrats tried to add the provisions back through an amendment, but Republicans blocked the move.
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In any case, DOR’s latest proposal signals that the administration is aligned on pursuing the reform again in 2023.
SPD, meanwhile, said in its budget request that, in the interest of reducing the agency’s staffing costs, the governor’s executive budget should propose decriminalize cannabis possession.
It says that cannabis possession should be “reclassified as an ordinance violation for first- and second-time offenders and a misdemeanor for third-time offenders, provided that there are no allegations that the individual is manufacturing, distributing, or delivering a controlled substance.”
The office estimates that “this law change would affect 1,982 cases and reduce SDP costs by $869,000.”
Polling indicates a strong majority of Wisconsin voters support marijuana legalization and nine local non-binding advisory questions on the subject passed by wide margins in the 2022 election.
Shortly after last month’s election, Evers told reporters at a press conference that “at some point in time, the will of the people will become the law of the land.”
“I sure the hell hope it happens within the next four years because we just can’t, as a state, continue to say, ‘well, 80 percent of the people want X’ and we try to do X and then nothing happens,” he said.
In September, Evers signed an executive order urging the legislature to start the process of amending the state Constitution to allow citizens to place initiatives on the ballot. The governor said he was taking that step to protect reproductive rights and give voters a necessary tool to repeal antiquated state laws restricting abortion following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Advocates believe the constitutional amendment could also empower citizens to end marijuana prohibition on their own in the face of Republican opposition.
Conservative Wisconsin lawmakers have repeatedly rebuffed attempts to reform the state’s cannabis laws despite a top GOP assemblyman admitting marijuana legalization was essentially an inevitability. Last summer, the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee voted against a motion to re-add a medical marijuana program to the 2021-2023 budget plan.
Assemblyman Evan Goyke (D) argued at the time that the state was becoming “more and more of an island” as neighboring states adopt new cannabis laws. He framed the medical marijuana measure as “an attempt at compromise” with Republicans who oppose broader adult-use legalization and argued that the “sky has not fallen” in other states that have allowed patients to access cannabis.
That same committee scrapped a proposal to legalize marijuana a few months before, prompting calls from the governor and other Democratic policymakers to have residents put pressure on their representatives to support the administration’s agenda.
Other GOP members have filed bills to more modestly decriminalize marijuana possession in the state, but none of those proposals advanced during the last session.
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.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.