During an inaugural address on Tuesday, the governor of Wisconsin reaffirmed his commitment to advancing marijuana reform in the new session.
After being sworn in for his second term, Gov. Tony Evers (D) listed a number of policy priorities, including for the state to have a “meaningful conversation about treating marijuana much like we do alcohol.”
“But we can’t do it alone. Together we will,” the governor, who has repeatedly advocated for adult-use cannabis legalization, said.
Evers has recognized that the conservative legislature is more likely to find bipartisan agreement on a relatively limited reform such as medical marijuana than to fully legalize recreational cannabis, but he’s still expected to include both policy proposals in his forthcoming executive budget proposal.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) said last month that if the governor followed through on including recreational legalization in his budget, that could jeopardize lawmakers’ efforts to find cross-party consensus on medical cannabis.
The speaker, who has previously expressed openness to medical cannabis legalization, said Evers shouldn’t be “pitching the farthest extreme position” if he wants to get some kind of reform enacted in the 2023 session.
In its budget request that was unveiled last month, the state Department of Revenue (DOR) called on the governor to put legalization in his executive proposal. The State Public Defender (SDP) is separately seeking decriminalization of cannabis possession.
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The governor included recreational and medical marijuana legalization in his 2021 budget and decriminalization and medical cannabis in his 2019 proposal, but the GOP-controlled legislature has blocked the reforms.
Some state lawmakers have also filed bills to legalize cannabis for adult use—and Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R) has said legalization is “likely” to happen at some point—but the legislature has so far failed to pass even more modest proposals like decriminalization or the legalization of medical cannabis.
Ahead of the November election, Evers met with college students and urged supporters to get engaged and vote, in part to ensure that the state advances marijuana legalization.
If Democrats had won enough seats, it could have also set them up to pass a resolution that the governor recently introduced to allow citizens to put initiatives on the ballot. Advocates expressed hope that the move could open the door to finally letting voters decide on marijuana legalization, but it’s unlikely that GOP lawmakers will go along with it.
But voters across the state have been making their voices heard on cannabis reform over the past several election cycles. Most recently, voters in three counties and five municipalities across the state approved non-binding advisory questions on their local ballots in support of legalization.
The local votes are largely meant to serve a messaging purpose, providing lawmakers with a clear policy temperature-check among their constituents. But those that were approved will not change any laws by themselves.
A statewide poll released in August found that a solid 69 percent of registered voters in Wisconsin believe that cannabis should be legal. That includes 81 percent of Democrats, 75 percent of independents and 51 percent of Republicans.
Republicans filed a limited medical cannabis bill last year—and it got a hearing on the unofficial marijuana holiday 4/20, but that came too late in the legislative session for lawmakers to actually vote on the measure.
Other GOP members have filed bills to more modestly decriminalize marijuana possession in the state, but none of those proposals advanced.
As it stands, marijuana possession is punishable by a maximum $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail for a first offense. People convicted of a subsequent offense would face a felony charge punishable by a maximum $10,000 fine and up to three and a half years in prison.
The governor vetoed a GOP-led bill last year that would have significantly ramped up criminal penalties for people who use butane or similar fuels to extract marijuana.
And in the interim as lawmakers pursue reform, the governor has issued hundreds of pardons during his years in office, primarily to people convicted of non-violent marijuana or other drug offenses.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.