Nine of the 18 Democrats vying for the Democratic nomination for Wisconsin governor appeared at a forum at LaFollette High School in Madison on Sunday, Jan. 28.
The event was moderated by Rep. Melissa Sargent (D-Madison), sponsor of 2017 AB482, which would legalize medical and adult use of cannabis in Wisconsin. At around 55 minutes into the hour and a half forum, Rep. Sargent asked the participants, "Would you support the legalization of medicinal or recreational marijuana in Wisconsin?"
The nine candidates who appeared were State Superintendent Tony Evers; Milwaukee businessman Andy Gronik; former Democratic Party Chairman Matt Flynn; political activist Mike McCabe; firefighters' union leader Mahlon Mitchell; former state representative Kelda Roys; Madison Mayor Paul Soglin; state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, of Alma; and state Rep. Dana Wachs, of Eau Claire.
Eight of the candidates had appeared at the forum in Menasha Jan. 17 and had mostly expressed support for both medicinal and "recreational" pot, with Tony Evers supporting medical cannabis legalization and a referendum on legalizing adult use. Their responses in Madison pretty much echoed what they had said in Menasha.
The only candidate present who was not at the Menasha forum was Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, who offered a more measured response than other candidates, "Yes, but, I do not believe it's the most important issue in this campaign. I would much rather focus on the challenges of behavioral health and reforming the correctional system."
While no candidate has actually stated that legalizing cannabis is the most important issue in the campaign, Soglin's pivot is disappointing and seems to indicate that to him, cannabis prohibition is not as much of a pressing social justice issue as his colleagues, despite triggering mass incarceration, racial disparities, and the continuing impact of criminal records on citizens caught up in the war on pot.
Despite the city's long history of decriminalization and strong support for legalization, the longtime Madison Mayor seems to miss that ending cannabis prohibition would in itself be a huge reform of the correctional system, removing non-violent offenders and the costs of arresting, prosecuting and jailing or supervising them so authorities could focus on crimes that represent a real threat.
A 2014 report by the Wisconsin State Journal analyzing 18 months of pot arrests found that in Madison, police arrest or cite blacks for marijuana offenses at more than 12 times the rate of whites, according to data analyzed by the State Journal covering 18 months of police drug arrests. Despite national surveys showing blacks and whites use pot at comparable rates, the State Journal found that in Madison, blacks make up more than half of people arrested or cited on for cannabis, despite representing about 7 percent of the city's population.
Cannabis legalization needs to be an important issue for so many reasons well beyond racial disparities and criminal justice.
Wisconsinites have overwhelmingly supported legalizing medical use for decades and the lack of it as 29 other states have adopted some kind of medical cannabis law has led to droves of state residents leaving for states that do. A July 2016 Marquette Law School poll found 59% support for regulating cannabis like alcohol, demonstrating majority support for legalizing adult use.
Cannabis in legal states has been found to be a potent tool in the battle against opiate addiction and has been found to reduce drunk driving and alcohol consumption, both major issues for Wisconsin.
The number of opioid overdoses in Madison and Wisconsin has spiked steeply, more than doubling statewide between 2010 and 2016 according to the latest figures available, with no end in sight. This constitutes a public health emergency and cannabis would help address it.
The cannabis issue is also very popular with voters, particularly younger voters. Democrats need to capitalize on this by supporting legalization to motivate voters to come to the polls. Pivoting away from the issue risks reducing turnout and enthusiasm.
Legalizing cannabis would have a huge positive impact that should be obvious to anyone seeking to lead the state and deserves to be a priority in every campaign.