The Democratic governor of Wisconsin says he’s “confident” that lawmakers in the state’s Republican-led legislature will produce a passable, bipartisan medical marijuana legalization bill this session, and that he’s ready to sign such a measure—as long as the majority party doesn’t come up with a “flawed” plan that’s overly restrictive.
In a pair of new interviews, Gov. Tony Evers (D) reacted to remarks from Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R), who said last week that Republicans are “getting pretty close on medical marijuana,” keeping the door open for reform this session.
While Evers plans to continue pushing for comprehensive reform that includes legalizing cannabis for adult use, he told WISN 12 News’s UPFRONT on Sunday that he’d sign medical marijuana legislation in the interim if it doesn’t contain problematic provisions.
“I talked to both leaders about marijuana in general—but yes, if a medicinal marijuana law came to my desk and it was in good shape and it wasn’t flawed in any way, I certainly will” sign it, he said. “I’ve supported medicinal marijuana since I’ve been governor.”
Asked about what he’d consider to be flawed legislation, Evers said one of his main concerns is “how restrictive it would be.”
“It seems to me it should be pretty straightforward, so we’ll see what it looks like, but I feel confident that they’ll come up with a bill that I can sign,” he said.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) has also talked about his interest in advancing medical cannabis reform, though he did signal that he’d want a fairly limited proposal that focuses on patients with a specific set of conditions, particularly those where marijuana could be used as an opioid alternative.
Evers separately talked about moving the issue forward in an interview with Newsradio 620 WTMJ that aired on Friday. He said that it was “good to hear” that the Senate majority leader was open to passing medical cannabis legalization, describing it as a “step in the right direction.”
Listen to the governor discuss legislative marijuana reform efforts below, starting at around 6:00:
“I believe that recreational marijuana is where we will end up at some point in time, but if medicinal marijuana legislation comes through, I certainly will support it,” the governor said.
One way that Evers plans to keep up momentum on the issue is through his forthcoming budget request. He’s likely to include language on both medical and recreational cannabis legalization in his proposal, despite the Assembly speaker previously saying that could compromise bipartisan talks on medical marijuana reform.
Evers, who stressed in his inaugural address last week that the state needs to have a “meaningful conversation about treating marijuana much like we do alcohol,” included adult-use and medical marijuana legalization in his 2021 budget and decriminalization and medical cannabis in his 2019 proposal, but the GOP-controlled legislature has blocked the reforms.
Meanwhile, in its budget request that was unveiled last month, the state Department of Revenue (DOR) called on the governor to put legalization in his executive proposal. The State Public Defender (SDP) is separately seeking decriminalization of cannabis possession.
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Some state lawmakers have also 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 recently 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.
The governor vetoed a GOP-led bill last year that would have significantly ramped up criminal penalties for people who use butane or similar fuels to extract marijuana.
And in the interim as lawmakers pursue reform, the governor has issued hundreds of pardons during his years in office, primarily to people convicted of non-violent marijuana or other drug offenses.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.