It’s not often I get to write about the defeat of a longtime nemesis of medical cannabis legislation in Wisconsin. State Sen. Julie Lassa (D-Stevens Point), was defeated by Republican Patrick Testin in the Nov. 8 general election by a 52-48% margin. Testin had expressed support for medical cannabis to voters while campaigning.
It’s a bit ironic that Lassa, who lagged so far behind public sentiment on cannabis legalization, lost her seat in an election that nationally included 8 of 9 states passing expanded cannabis legislation on their respective ballots. As of today 4 more states have legalized adult use making a total of 8 with 3 more passing medical bringing that total to 28, with the District of Columbia previously legalizing both. While more and more politicians are seeing the writing on the wall, Lassa has turned away.
Historically and currently Democrats are more likely to support cannabis reform legislation in the Wisconsin legislature. Lassa, who was first elected to the State Senate in 2002 and had previously served in the Assembly from 1999 to 2003 was never supportive. Although I spent a lot of time lobbying at the Capitol in the 2000s, I really only became aware of her cannabigotry through her opposition to medical cannabis when I began regularly visiting her office in 2009 as she served on the Senate Health committee then chaired by medical cannabis bill sponsor Sen. Jon Erpenbach.
With a combined Assembly/Senate public hearing scheduled on Dec. 15, 2009, Lassa was a key vote on the committee. The Republican leadership decided early on to oppose the bill, saying that the Dems, as the majority party from 2009-2010, would have to pass by themselves. At the Dec. 15, 2009 hearing, Sens. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) and Alberta Darling (R-River Falls) joined then-Reps. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa) and Pat Strachota (R-West Bend) in an all-out assault. Vukmir’s attacks were so nasty they provoked loud booing and jeers from offended attendees.
With GOP lawmakers in full “Party of No” form, responsibility for passing the bill fell to Democrats. Support at the hearing came from Erpenbach, Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee) and Judy Robson (D-Beloit). Julie Lassa (D-Stevens Point) appeared disinterested – and was. While Wisconsin veterans, seniors, sick, disabled and dying waited months for a committee vote, the buck stopped with Lassa. Rather than being a leader and working to find a compromise, she joined with the three committee Republicans, Darling, Lazich and Kanavas in opposing it, and the bill died in committee without a vote.
Lassa lost a run for the congressional seat of David Obey in Nov. 2010 and her medical cannabis opposition played a huge role. A couple dozen activists, myself included, picketed outside a fundraiser she held at the Madison Club two blocks from the Capitol. Documents obtained through a 2010 open records request reveal angry calls and messages from hundreds of Lassa’s constituents including a local elected official in her district who wrote in all caps “GUTLESS”.
In 2013, the late-Sen. Rick Gudex (R-Fond du Lac) and Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac) introduced SB150/SB164. According to an analysis by the Legislative Reference Bureau, in cases where the district attorney has declined to prosecute, the bills allowed “a local governmental unit or a county to enact and enforce an ordinance to prohibit the possession of any amount of marijuana and to prosecute a person for a second or subsequent offense of possessing marijuana or a synthetic cannabinoid.” At public hearings in both chambers, both bill sponsors and GOP committee members were openly hostile to cannabis reform activists, who strongly opposed it.
SB150’s Assembly version, AB 164 passed out of committee on June 4 after a public hearing with majority Republicans voting in favor on a party line 5-3 vote. In the Senate the committee vote was 4-1 in favor, with Sen. Julie Lassa (D-Stevens Point) the third ranking Democrat in the Senate, joining Republican Sens. Gudex, Joe Liebham (R-Sheboygan) and Jerry Petrowski (R- Marathon) in voting to send SB150 to the full Senate. Only Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee), who spoke strongly against it at the hearing, voted no.
SB150 passed the Senate by a 24-9 margin with Lassa one of six Democrats joining with Republicans. AB164 later passed the Assembly 58-40 and the new law was signed by Gov. Scott Walker on April 16, 2014 2013 becoming 2013 Wisconsin Act 293.
Earlier this year in July, Lassa demonstrated some real hypocrisy in publishing an OPED in the Wisconsin Rapid Daily Tribune, “There is Help for PTSD.” about veterans and PTSD, despite her longtime opposition to medical cannabis. Many PTSD patients find medical cannabis preferable to the harsh pharmaceuticals they are often prescribed.
Wisconsin Democrats, who held 14 of 33 Senate seats and 36 of 99 Assembly seats this session, also lost a seat in the Assembly with the defeat of Rep. Chris Danou (D-Trempealeau), boosting the Republican majority to 64 members next session. Their margin for the 2017-2016 session of 64-35 will be the GOP’s largest majority in the Assembly since 1957, coincidentally also the year of the last legal industrial hemp harvest in Wisconsin.
Danou, a former police officer, has been a strong supporter of medical cannabis and hemp legislation in his time in office and will be greatly missed. In the 2015-2016 session, Danou cosponsored AB215, the bipartisan (One Republican) hemp bill that like all other Democrat-sponsored pot bills died in committee without public hearings. The GOP entered the race for the Senate with an 18-14 edge with one vacant seat. Republicans won the open seat, with their incumbents winning their races. Lassa’s defeat give the GOP a 20-12 edge in the Senate when they reconvene in January 2017.