State Democrats are once again introducing a bill to legalize weed in Wisconsin. This comes after years of failed attempts. Most recently when, Governor Tony Evers attempted legalization in his biennial budget.
The Sunnyside cannabis dispensary is just across the Wisconsin-Illinois border. If you’re driving on I-90 coming from Madison, it’s the first exit after the “Welcome to Illinois” sign. In the parking lot, most cars have Wisconsin license plates. Also in the parking lot, from Wisconsin, is State Senator Melissa Agard championing cannabis legalization. Agard points to the fact that most of Wisconsin’s neighboring states have some form of legalized weed. “We are past time ready for a statewide discussion about this policy and moving Wisconsin in the right direction. Wisconsin is an island of prohibition,” she says. “Prohibition has not worked when it comes to alcohol, it did not work when it came to margarine, and it’s not working when it comes to cannabis. Prohibition in Wisconsin is leaving us behind, and we urgently need to change the policies of our state.”
Agard (D-Madison) introduced similar legislation twice before when she was a state representative. She points to three main reasons for legalization: addressing racial disparities, investing in Wisconsin’s family farms, and stimulating the economy.
When asked how this attempt will be different, Agard says people’s values have changed since her first attempt in 2013. She points to policy in Illinois, which was passed by state lawmakers. Many states have solidified their cannabis laws through ballot initiative–an option that doesn’t exist in Wisconsin. “We’re seeing the direct impacts on a community right across the border, Midwestern values,” say Agard.
Under the bill, cannabis would be taxed and regulated much like alcohol. The bill would allow adults 21 years and older to possess up to two ounces of cannabis and six plants for personal use. Selling to anyone under 21 would still be illegal. It would also be illegal to sell cannabis without a permit.
Representative David Bowen, a democrat from Milwaukee, is the lead author on the assembly bill. He says that this bill aligns with his main policy goal of eliminating racial disparities in the state. “It is beyond time that we reverse the course of these failed policies and join many other states, in realizing that the war on drugs has done nothing to curb drug use, but has continued to criminalize being Black.” He points to disparities in criminalization as reasons the legislature needs to act.
Under state law, possession of any amount is a misdemeanor serving up to six-months in prison. Subsequent offense is a felony serving up to 3.5 years. The proposed bill includes a path to expungement for people who have been convicted of a weed-related crime that is decriminalized under the bill. Their conviction wouldn’t be immediately overturned, but they could petition for expungement and dismissal of the conviction.
Additionally under the bill, one couldn’t become ineligible for government subsidies or lose their job because of a positive THC drug test. Representative Mark Spreitzer (D – Beloit) represents part of Rock County–where in 2018 on an advisory referendum 69% of voters supported cannabis legalization. “As we stand here at Sunnyside today, we are just minutes from the Wisconsin border. That means that our state is losing out on millions of dollars in revenue each year, and my legislative district is losing revenue as people drive here to South Boyd, to pay taxes just across our border,” Spreitzer says.
The bill estimates that the legal cannabis industry would make about $165 million in taxes per year. 60% of that tax revenue will go into the “community reinvestment fund”–a fund that will be paid out in a number of grants to invest in community health and development.
The bill is now circulating for co-sponsorship.