Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker today signed into law 2017 Senate Bill 119, regarding industrial hemp production, at a signing ceremony at the Capitol, making the state the 34th to allow farmers to grow hemp..
The bill signing was confirmed in a press release from the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Jesse Kremer and Sen. Patrick Testin, the Farm Freedom Act’s primary authors, who were excited about the new opportunities that the bill gives to farmers.
“After more than a year working with farmers, processors, and many of our colleagues to craft legislation to bring industrial hemp back to our state, today’s signing is an exciting time for Wisconsin,” stated Rep. Kremer. “The Farm Freedom Act will serve as a catalyst for new careers and rural hi-tech manufacturing for Wisconsin farmers and entrepreneurs who are poised to become national and global leaders in this industry in the decades to come.”
Senator Testin agreed that the day was a significant milestone for Wisconsin farmers – and that it was a long time coming.
“I am grateful that former representative Eugene Hahn could join us at the signing,” said Sen. Testin. “He was a champion of this bill for years, and he laid the groundwork for today’s success. It’s very gratifying to be able to get this done for Wisconsin farmers.”
Kremer a conservative Republican, who noted at the beginning of a 2016 press release that he was “110% against legalizing recreational marijuana,” was an unlikely champion for restoring Wisconsin farmers rights to cultivate cannabis hemp again in the state. Kremer found a senate sponsor in Sen. Patrick Testin, a Stevens Point Republican who defeated the notoriously anti-medical cannabis Democratic incumbent, Julie Lassa in a Nov. 2016 upset.
The legislation quickly found broad bipartisan support among lawmakers as well as state groups like the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, Wisconsin Farmers Union, Earth Island Institute/Hempstead Project HEART, Wisconsin Property Taxpayers Inc. and the Midwest Food Products Association Inc., which all lobbied in favor.
Farmers first grew hemp in Wisconsin even before it was admitted as a state in 1848. An article in the May 10, 1873 Janesville Gazette reported, “Of ail crops, it is conceded hemp pays best.” In the early 1900’s. Hemp was even grown by inmates at the state prison in Waupun and on the grounds of what is today the Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison.
Madison’s Capital Times reported in Feb. 1941, “Wisconsin produces over 75 per cent of the hemp raised commercially in the United States.”
In November, 1942, the Rhinelander Daily News carried an item in their “War Farm News” column: “Hemp – Wisconsin farmers, who this year produced 8,000 acres of hemp, will be called upon to grow 40,000 of the 200,000 hemp acres required to meet the nation’s needs of 300 to 400 million pounds of hemp fiber for next year.
To put things in perspective, forty-thousand acres is 62.5 square miles of cannabis hemp plants. By comparison, Milwaukee, the state’s largest city is about 95 square miles and Madison around 78.
Wisconsin’s last commercial hemp fields were planted in 1957, and the last legal hemp producer nationwide, the Rens Hemp Company of Brandon, Wisconsin, closed in 1958. With Walker’s signature. Wisconsin farmers will soon be planting legal crops in Spring 2018, beginning the restoration of a crop once so widely cultivated that Wisconsin was practically synonymous with hemp farming.
Walker’s signature was not a sure thing given his long record of opposing cannabis legalization even for medical use. As recently as October 10, the day the hemp bill had a senate committee hearing, the governor was asked to comment at an appearance in Cadott. WEAU,com reported Walker shared some concerns:
“It’s early in the process and it’s certainly something we’ll look at. Overall, looking at this I have a concern in anything that would lead to legalization, mainly because as we fight opioid and heroin abuse across the state, one of the things I hear for public health and law enforcement and others is anything that’s a gateway into some of these other areas is a big, big concern. We hear it from small towns to big cities and everywhere in between.”
In two subsequent responses, Walker’s spokesman said the governor “would review it if it reached his desk”, and more recently, “would review the bill but did not commit to signing it.”
But given the dual unanimous votes and the potential negative political blowback of a veto from supporters with an election year looming, signing it was his only good option.
In an article published today, Ken Anderson, who owns the hemp seed producer and hemp grain processing company Legacy Hemp LLC in Prescott, told the Wisconsin State Journal, “The rest of the country is on notice. We used to lead the country in industrial hemp production and we will again. I think Wisconsin is going to show America how hemp is done.”
While Wisconsin may seem hopelessly mired in cannabis prohibition, the list of sponsors on the hemp bill includes numerous Republican lawmakers cosponsoring cannabis-related legislation for the first time. SB119 sponsors range across the political spectrum from very conservative Republicans like Assembly lead sponsor Jesse Kremer to liberal Democrats known for their support of full legalization, like Rep. Melissa Sargent (D-Madison).
In May 2010, more than 30 Wisconsin medical marijuana supporters gathered in Tomah at the late Ed Thompson’s Tee Pee Supper Club for a Wisconsin NORML meeting to devise new strategies after medical cannabis legislation failed to move out of committee (Thanks to Julie Lassa) in the then-Democratic controlled legislature. Both Ed and his brother, former Gov. Tommy Thompson, were at the Tee Pee that day. The former governor made a brief appearance at the NORML meeting during which he was asked for advice on passing medical cannabis legislation in Wisconsin.
“Pass the hemp bill first, as it already has bipartisan support, and it’s easier to vote for medical when you’ve already voted for hemp,” was Tommy Thompson’s response. Today Wisconsin reached that threshold.