40 years ago Madison voted to legalize cannabis like alcohol or tobacco

On Nov. 8, voters in nine states will have the opportunity to vote on expanding legal access to cannabis. 25 states and Washington D.C. currently have some kind of medical cannabis law. Five of those states: Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada, could join Oregon, Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Washington D.C. in legalizing so-called recreational use. If all five pass, 23% of Americans, about 75 million people, will live in states where cannabis is taxed and regulated for adult use. Voters in three more: Florida, Arkansas and North Dakota, will get to decide whether to permit medical cannabis. Montanans will vote on easing restrictions on an existing medical cannabis law.

Wisconsin voters will remain on the outside looking in because the state constitution never authorized a statewide initiative and referendum process. As I’ve noted before citizens in cities and villages can collect signatures to place binding referendums before voters and Monona voters would have been voting Nov. 8 to reduce pot fines had that effort succeeded. Activists in Oshkosh recently submitted signature to reduce pot fines, with the city clerk still in the process of examining petitions and verifying signatures. But while local referendums can reduce or remove penalties for small amounts of pot, they cannot change existing state law.

On November 2, 1976, Madison voters voted on two advisory referendums, one on support for legalization and the other for support on decriminalization and both passed. A Nov. 3, 1976 Capital Times article reported that the two lead organizers of the two campaigns, Madison Ald. Roney Sorensen and Dane County Supervisor Neil Kaufler said they spent a total of only $5.00 on both campaigns. After the two wins Kaufler joked that, “at least in Madison, Wisconsin, smoking marijuana is no longer anti-establishment.”

Nov. 3, 1976 Capital Times article on cannabis advisory referendums.
Nov. 3, 1976 Capital Times article on cannabis advisory referendums.

An article from the September 22, 1976 Wisconsin State Journal included the wording of each question. The legalization question read, “Be it resolved that the City of Madison supports state legislation which would legalize marijuana in a similar manner to alcohol and tobacco, with appropriate laws governing taxation, licensing, prohibition of use by minors and motor vehicle operators and consumer protection.”

The wording of the second question, regarding cannabis decriminalization, was: “During the last session of the State Legislature, legislation was introduced to reduce the penalty for possession of Small amounts of marijuana to a fine. Do you support this type of legislation?”

Two days after the election, Nov, 4, 1976, in an article titled, “City marijuana vote seen as message to lawmakers,” the Wisconsin State Journal wrote; “Madison voters narrowly affirmed Tuesday by a 38,906 to 38,828 tally that marijuana be made a legal drug like alcohol, tobacco or coffee”. Of a total 77,734 votes, 50.05% favored legalization and 49.95% opposed. The decriminalization vote was 63% in favor (49,091 votes) versus 37% against (28,853 votes) with the total votes cast 77,944.

Headline and part of Wisconsin State Journal article from Nov. 4, 1976 on thr referendum votes on cannabis.
Headline and part of Wisconsin State Journal article, “City marijuana vote seen as message to lawmakers,” from Nov. 4, 1976 on thr referendum votes on cannabis.

The Nov. 4, 1976 Wisconsin State Journal article noted that at the time cannabis decriminalization had the support of groups from “the State Council on Drug Abuse to the League of Women Voters to the State Council on Criminal Justice,” as well as the Wisconsin Association on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse (WAAODA).

The Nov. 1976 ballot was so crowded that a third referendum, this one binding, was pushed back to the Spring elections in April 1977. This referendum became Madison’s historic cannabis law, Ordinance 23.20. Cannabadger will take a look at that at a later date closer to the actual anniversary.

Cannabis legalization fared much better in an April 2014 advisory referendum when 56% of county voters favored legalization. A July 2016 Marquette Law School Poll found 59% of Wisconsinite support cannabis being “fully legalized and regulated like alcohol.

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