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Is Marijuana Reform Coming to Wisconsin?

February 12, 2021

Presently, 36 states have legalized medical marijuana and 15 have legalized full adult (i.e., recreational) use.  It is anticipated five more will be added to that column in 2021.  Three of the four states contiguous to Wisconsin have either medical marijuana (Minnesota) or both medical and adult-use (Illinois and Michigan).  So what’s in store for the Badger state?

Governor Evers recently announced that he intends to include provisions for both medical and adult-use marijuana in his upcoming budget as a way to generate revenue for schools and rural communities.  He had included a provision for medical marijuana in his past budget which did not come to fruition. To see how that happened and make predictions for the future, we must start with a brief civics lesson.

Unlike many states that have enacted marijuana reform laws, Wisconsin does not have a ballot initiative provision for its laws.  Readers may recall a couple of years ago when marijuana legalization in one form or another was put to voters in seventeen counties or cities across the state; every municipality voted in favor of the legalization question put before it.  While this was certainly interesting, it had no legal impact because these were limited to being advisory referendums, not ballot initiatives.  Because Wisconsin voters do not get to decide directly what becomes law, that task falls to our elected officials.  Bills have to be introduced, vetted, and get out of one or more committees in each chamber, and once reconciled pass both the Assembly and Senate before being presented to the Governor for signature.  In Wisconsin, both the Assembly and the Senate are controlled by Republican majorities, a caucus that, typically, has been more resistant to marijuana reform.  There are signs from a number of Republican leaders that resistance may be softening.

While Governor Evers’ proposal for full legalization coming out of his budget bill is likely to meet the same fate as his past budget measure, some movement may not be out of the question.  Assembly Speaker Vos has gone on record supporting medical marijuana but opposing adult use.  Senate Majority Leader LaMahieu has not issued a comment on the Evers’ proposal as of this writing but two of his Republican colleagues, Senators Felzkowski and Bernier, have gone on record supporting medical marijuana but opposing adult use.  Senator Bernier recently characterized the Governor’s proposal pushing both medical and adult-use as “divisive,” but also signaled a willingness to “work together” on what could be accomplished politically, presumably on a stand-alone medical marijuana bill.  There have been many stand-alone proposals drafted by Democratic legislators over the past few years, and it will be interesting to see if any variations of them gain traction as the environment in the Capitol evolves.

While this issue plays out state-wide, it is doing so against a backdrop of a number of national efforts.  Some of these could force change on states, while others change the landscape to make marijuana reform easier.  The incoming Biden administration has signaled a willingness to embrace marijuana reform, suggesting that there should be national legalization for medical use and support for states choosing to embrace adult use.   Additionally, there are a number of bills that have been floating around for some time that are now receiving hearings and some bipartisan support.  Notable among these are the SAFE Banking Act (which would open up access to banking and insurance for legitimate cannabis businesses); the MORE Act (which would remove marijuana from the schedule of the Controlled Substances Act, eliminate criminal penalties and provide restorative social justice measures to communities impacted by past marijuana enforcement policies); HR 430 (provides protections to veterans who use medical marijuana); and HR 365 (which would reschedule marijuana).

Clearly, there are many balls in the air around marijuana reform that could impact Wisconsinites in the years to come.  If you have questions about how any of these efforts might impact your business planning, feel free to reach out to a member of our Cannabis Team.