This November citizens in nine states will be voting to legalize medical cannabis or adult use. Wisconsin will not be among them. As of June 2016, 25 states and Washington D.C. currently have some form of medical cannabis law and 4 plus Washington D.C. have legalized adult use. I recently read an article in Motley Fool that listed Wisconsin among 14 states that would likely be the last of the remaining 25 to legalize cannabis.
The article contends and I have long agreed that a major reason outside of politics that no law has been passed is the lack of an initiative and referendum (I&R) process in Wisconsin, through which citizens can collect signatures to place issues before voters. 26 states allow for I&R. The state’s direct legislation process exists only at the city and village level in Wisconsin, not statewide. Despite the state’s progressive legacy, this critical process was not included in the state constitution.
Despite polling dating back to 2002 showing overwhelming support for a medical cannabis law, enabling legislation has never received a committee vote, much less a floor vote in the legislature in almost thirty-five years. Lawmakers passed the Therapeutic Cannabis Research Act (TCRA) in 1982, but it has no means of supply. The July 2016 Marquette Law School Poll found 59% agreeing pot should be legalized and regulated like alcohol in Wisconsin. Advisory referendums on medical cannabis in Dane County and River Falls in 2010 and full legalization in Dane County in 2014 also established overwhelming support for legalization.
Support for legalization in Wisconsin actually dates back many decades. In 1975 the state held a series of 8 hearings on pot laws. Out of 1,128 who responded to a questionnaire, 1,083, or 94% supported reducing or eliminating penalties, with 59% favoring legalization. Only a handful wanted stiffer laws.
Yet session after session, Wisconsin lawmakers failed to pass even a statewide decriminalization law. When California voters passed Prop 215 in 1996, legalizing medical cannabis, a new era began. Other states with the I&R process quickly followed suit, like Oregon, Washington State, Colorado and others quickly followed suit.
I truly believe that if Wisconsin had the I&R process the state would have been among the early states to pass medical cannabis. Wisconsin could have become an industry pioneer much like California, Washington State, Colorado, Oregon and others, exporting the latest medical cannabis technology to new states coming online. But close-minded politicians from both sides of the aisle held tight, ensuring the criminalization of Wisconsinites for treating their illness with a plant or choosing cannabis for recreation over alcohol would continue.
And that’s where we stand today. With Gov. Scott Walker solidly on record against even medical cannabis and in office through at least Jan. 2019 and GOP domination of the State Assembly now at 63 to 36, the coming elections will do little to change the equation. Even if Democrats manage to gain control of the State Senate, their caucus includes longtime opponent Sen. Julie Lassa (D-Stevens Point), who joined with Republicans to block the 2009-2010 medical bill when Democrats briefly controlled the governor’s office and both chambers. But even if a Democratic-controlled Senate came together to pass a medical bill, it would still be unlikely to get traction in the GOP Assembly. For cannabis legislation to progress there needs to be some major changes in thinking among those who govern us to bring them into sync with the public, who are ready for legal pot now.