Wisconsin’s Menominee Nation is set to hold its advisory referendum on legalizing medical and recreational cannabis on tribal lands on Aug. 19 and 20.
Passage could be the beginning of some big changes in Wisconsin. If a sovereign tribe within Wisconsin is able to legally produce cannabis under federal guidelines, that creates a new dynamic that could force progress at the state level.
The Menominee Nation is the only tribe in the state that is a non-Public Law 280 tribe. The federal government enforces the laws on its reservation, not the state. Republican majorities in both houses have been very cool to most cannabis-related legislation outside of the Cannabidiol law passed last year and this session’s CBD bill.
But it was passage of the CBD law in 2014 that opened the door to some kind of legal cannabis cultivation for tribes just as the passage of a state lottery law opened the doors to Indian casinos decades ago. And it was Gov. Scott Walker’s rebuff of a Menominee casino project that helped build support for the possibility of legalizing cannabis on the reservation.
In January 2015, the Menominee’s plans to run an off-reservation casino in Kenosha, a project twenty years in the making, were rejected by Gov. Walker. In February, the tribe asked for a meeting with Walker, and tribal members completed a 5-day, 156-mile march from Keshena to the State Capitol in Madison in bitterly cold conditions. The meeting request was denied.
Later, the tribe’s offer to pay $220 million toward the new Milwaukee Bucks arena if the casino was approved was also rejected. Legislators later passed a bill putting state taxpayers on the hook for the $250 million to build the new arena for the Bucks’ billionaire owners.
With Republicans controlling practically the entire state government, most cannabis legislation, such as AB224 and AB246, is ignored by GOP lawmakers and left to die in committee by Republican committee chairs like Rep. Joel Kleefisch (R-Oconomowoc), the husband of Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.
But with sovereign status, the Menominee can go around the Republican blockade. And Republicans know this. Attorney General Brad Schimel has admitted as much in comments in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
And, despite, Schimel’s tough talk on what the state might do, the Journal-Sentinel notes that three Chippewa tribes – the Sokaogon (Mole Lake), Red Cliff and St. Croix – are all looking into legalizing some form or marijuana on their reservations. Mole Lake and Red Cliff members have already approved legalization of medical marijuana on their reservations in tribal referendums.
With the growing interest in legalization and given strong public support for medical cannabis, this referendum has become a huge story in Wisconsin and beyond. If the referendum passes, it will only get larger. And if it does, confronted by the inevitability of legalization within state borders on someone else’s terms, will lawmakers finally begin to address the cannabis issue?