Top Wisconsin Senator Talks Marijuana Legalization Fight Amid GOP Opposition
Wisconsin’s Democratic Senate minority leader keeps a U.S. map in her office, color-coded to show the status of state marijuana laws around the country. Lately, that map has been growing greener and greener—but not in Wisconsin itself, where the GOP-controlled legislature has resisted even incremental reform.
With Minnesota lawmakers next door poised to send a legalization bill to the pro-reform governor’s desk, Wisconsin will soon become an island of prohibition, surrounded by three states with adult-use markets and one with a limited medical program. Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard (D) has worked to change that, but Republican leadership controls the agenda—and legalization is not on that list.
“We know that, in Wisconsin, when the Republican members of the legislature want to address something and get it done, they can do it in a swift manner,” Agard told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on Monday. “And they clearly are not prioritizing cannabis reform in Wisconsin. We haven’t seen it happen.”
Updating the office map AGAIN for #MarijuanaMonday!
Last week, Maryland @GovWesMoore signed into law #cannabis reform, and Marylanders will offficial have a legal recreational market on July 1st, 2023! pic.twitter.com/c5h2Vs5dAg
— Senator Melissa Agard 🌻 (@SenatorAgard) May 9, 2023
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) said last month that GOP legislators have been privately working on medical cannabis legislation—but no bills have been introduced, no details have been disclosed and no hearings have been scheduled. The Senate minority leader is skeptical.
“I continue to not be looped in to any conversations that are happening and continue to offer myself to be part of them,” she said. “They haven’t provided any sort of actual examples of what policy they would be interested in moving forward.”
If GOP members are seriously considering medical cannabis reform, the expectation is that any proposal that emerges from those discussions will be restrictive—possibly so restrictive that Democrats might be unwilling to go along with it.
Gov. Tony Evers (D), who strongly supports legalization, said in January that he does believe Republicans will introduced medical cannabis legislation this session, and he committed to signing it into law, so long as it’s not “flawed” with too many limitations.
69% of Wisconsinites support marijuana legalization and Republican leadership continues to ignore the will of the people. https://t.co/yPjYkhpzaE
— Senator Melissa Agard 🌻 (@SenatorAgard) May 11, 2023
The governor and the GOP majority have had a strained relationship on this issue. Leadership has criticized Evers for putting adult-use legalization in recent budget requests, with the Assembly speaker warning this year that including the broad reform could jeopardize talks on more modest medical marijuana legislation.
He did it anyways—and, at a joint committee hearing last week, Republicans responded in kind, stripping both recreational and medical cannabis language from the budget proposal, along with hundreds of other policy items.
Doing so, they said, was a matter of fiscal responsibility. But Democrats say that’s a red herring that ignores the fact that enacting a regulated cannabis market in Wisconsin would ultimately generate revenue and create jobs.
#Cannabis prohibition is not working for #Wisconsin.
We need to #LegalizeIt to address Wisconsin’s egregious racial disparities, bolster our agriculture and farming heritage, safely regulate the existing illicit market, and support entrepreneurhip. https://t.co/5Q8pEGkAh8
— Senator Melissa Agard 🌻 (@SenatorAgard) May 2, 2023
Agard said in the Marijuana Moment interview that cannabis reform is just one of several major policy issues where there’s a clear disconnect between what the majority of voters want and what GOP majority does. She attributes much of the problem to “extreme gerrymandering” in the state.
Still, cannabis does put a unique spotlight on the political inaction because support for legalization is strong and increasingly bipartisan, leaving voters in both parties to question leadership.
“The folks that are advocating for cannabis reform are such a diverse and broad coalition,” the minority leader said. She’s seen this firsthand as she visits cities across Wisconsin as part of her “Grass Routes” tour, talking to people of different political backgrounds who come to her “scratching their heads and frustrated” over the lack of meaningful reform.
“They see it as common sense. They see it as actually making Wisconsin safer—as well as the ability to invest in the prosperity of our state and honor people’s personal liberties,” she said. “To me, that’s the trifecta of good governance, so we’ll continue.”
Wisconsinites have shown support for the issue in different ways. Polling has come across loud and clear—but voters have also passed a number of local non-binding advisory questions during elections to tell lawmakers in Madison where they stand on marijuana.
The local referendums have been “super important because it allows people to feel less alone in their viewpoints,” Agard said.
“There’s been so much stigma in advocating for cannabis reform across our nation for so long,” she said. “And when people can actually vote their values—even if it’s a non-binding referendum, which I know is frustrating to many people in Wisconsin—they actually realize that there is safety in having these conversations publicly, and they feel less alone. I think that that is helpful in building coalitions and figuring out how it is that we actually change.”
That right to place advisory questions on city and county ballots is being threatened, however. As part of a bill on revenue sharing, Republican lawmakers included a two-line provision that would prohibit municipalities from holding such referenda. The governor has said that he will not sign the legislation as drafted.
“Republicans wanted to take out non-fiscal conversations from a budget bill, but now they are actually inserting poison pills that they aren’t able to get through standalone bills,” Agard said. “That feels really tricky. It feels like they’re on both sides of the knife.”
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Another way that voters have demonstrated support for legalization is with their dollars, she said. Specifically, the millions of dollars that are being spent by Wisconsinites who are traveling to nearby legal states like Illinois and Michigan to buy cannabis from adult-use retailers.
There’s still a thriving illicit market for marijuana in Wisconsin, the senator said, yet residents are spending the extra time and money to patronize licensed cannabis shops, underscoring the demand for a regulated market.
At Agard’s request, the state’s non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) carried out a study that was released in March showing that Wisconsin residents purchased more than $121 million worth of marijuana from Illinois retailers in 2022, contributing about $36 million in tax revenue to the state.
Wisconsin’s out-dated marijuana laws are costing us so much more than $36 million – lives are being disrupted – but this is so upsetting to see Wisconsinites hard-earned tax dollars go to Illinois because WI GOP refuses to listen to the will of the people. https://t.co/TkqUEeOH8F
— Senator Melissa Agard 🌻 (@SenatorAgard) March 17, 2023
A separate report published by Wisconsin Policy Forum in February found that 50 percent of adults 21 and older in the state live within 75 minutes of an out-of-state cannabis retailer, such as in Illinois or Michigan. That percentage stands to increase when Minnesota’s market eventually comes online.
Agard shares the frustration of voters, but she remains optimistic that the scales will eventually tip in favor of reform. The coalition of bipartisan supporters continues to grow, regional dynamics continue to challenge the status quo of prohibition and lawmakers continue to face pressure to make a change.
“It’s not a matter of if it’s going to happen,” she said. “It’s a matter of when.”
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.