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'Half-baked': Republicans give marijuana bill 4/20 hearing; Democrats say measure not enough

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Legal gray area

After years of rejecting efforts to legalize medical and recreational marijuana, several Republican lawmakers on Wednesday promoted a medical cannabis measure — but with session over, there’s almost no chance legislators pass the bill this year.

Rallying in support of full legalization for years, some Democrats said the legislation doesn’t go far enough to legalize a drug that most Wisconsinites want to see accessible and regulated. No Democrats have formally signed on to support the bill.

This week's potcast goes up in smoke with Sen.-elect Melissa Agard, D-Madison, the unlikely face of efforts to legalize marijuana in Wisconsin. Agard is no pothead. She's the opposite of the "Cheech and Chong" stoner cliche. She's a single mom of four boys who tells Milfred and Hands she's never had the drug but is absolutely convinced that legalizing it will make Wisconsin safer. 

The Republican bill, SB 1034, is only meant for people with serious conditions, bill author Sen. Mary Felzkowski, R-Irma, said before the Senate Insurance, Licensing and Forestry Committee hearing. She referenced a 13-year-old girl whose serious medicinal condition could be ameliorated with medicinal marijuana.

“It breaks my heart that we sit here and deny her a possible cure,” she said.

The measure would extend to people with conditions including Crohn’s disease, glaucoma, cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis (MS) and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

It was the first time in Wisconsin that a Republican-majority Legislature granted a public hearing for a marijuana bill. It’s also the first time since 2009 that a marijuana bill received a public hearing.

A 2022 Marquette Law School Poll found 61% of Wisconsinites, including 51% of Republicans, want marijuana to be fully legalized. A 2019 Marquette Law School Poll found 83% of Wisconsinites said medical marijuana should be legal.

But the hearing came after the legislative session ended for the year because Republican leadership said the bill was introduced too late, Felzkowski said. Felzkowski and bill author Rep. Patrick Snyder, R-Schofield, said they would reintroduce the bill in January regardless of who the governor is.

The measure would permit only non-smokable forms of marijuana. A patient seeking eligibility in the program would need a written recommendation from a physician, physician assistant or certified advanced practice nurse prescriber.

“We cannot settle for half-baked, insufficient legislation that is nothing more than a political ploy to give folks false hope on the prospects of cannabis legalization here in Wisconsin,” Sen. Melissa Agard, D-Madison, said in a statement. “We must put our efforts behind full cannabis legalization.”

Felzkowski said recreational marijuana was a different issue that would require a separate measure.

“This is a starting framework,” she said, adding that she is open to amending the bill to include more medical conditions.

Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, thanked the Republican authors for the measure but said the legislation saddens her because it doesn’t propose full legalization, a tool that she said could lower incarceration rates for Black Wisconsinites. One of every 36 Black Wisconsinites is in prison, the highest rate in the nation.

Under the measure, people convicted of controlled substance offenses would not be able to grow, transport or distribute cannabis.

“In Wisconsin, I know that the most dangerous thing about cannabis is the fact that it remains illegal,” Agard said at the hearing, adding that the bill doesn’t address racial disparities.

Felzkowski said racial disparities need to be addressed but that her medical marijuana bill is not the place to address them.

GOP compromise

The measure marks a step toward compromise for Republicans, who removed legalizing recreational and medical marijuana from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ 2021-23 budget proposal.

“Everything that we move forward is a win. It’s not a loss. … Getting this going right now is a win,” Felzkowski said later in the hearing.

Opposed to the bill, the Wisconsin Medical Society in a statement said research into marijuana’s properties was sparse and that the legislation is “unfortunately premature at this time.”

If passed, the bill would put Wisconsin together with 37 states that permit medical marijuana, including states with Republican legislatures and governors and neighboring states Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota.

In the past decade, Republican lawmakers have rejected several Democratic bills that would have legalized recreational marijuana.

Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, said in April 2021 that he’s not comfortable with Wisconsin becoming a “rogue state,” legalizing marijuana before the federal government does.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, who indicated his support for medical marijuana in the past, may also be on board.

“I’ve always been supportive of medical marijuana when done the right way,” he said in January.

The public hearing fell on April 20, an unofficial holiday for cannabis consumption, something Felzkowski previously claimed she didn’t know. The date is a reference to 4:20, the time of day a group of California students in the 1970s would meet to smoke weed, which over the years caught on as marijuana slang.

“I was totally clueless on what 420’s reference was,” Felzkowski said before the hearing. “Maybe that shows my age. My staff said, ‘Yes, we thought you knew.’ I’m just a little bit older and not up on the reference.”

Bill regulations

Federal laws prohibit medical and recreational marijuana, though legislation known as the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment has prohibited the Justice Department from spending money to interfere with the implementation of state medical cannabis laws.

Under the bill, a Medical Marijuana Regulatory Commission would regulate the medical marijuana program.

Under the program, medical marijuana patients would then be able to access cannabis products stocked by wholesalers who would be subject to a 10% state excise tax. It would be available to some minors.

The bill would require licensed producers, processors and laboratories to operate in an enclosed, locked facility, and they could not have past drug convictions. It would also require them to sell directly to medical dispensaries — not directly to patients — a requirement that would likely close the door on small-time producers as well as patients producing marijuana for their own use.

Under current state law, first-time marijuana possession is punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail, while local governments are allowed to establish their own penalties for possessing small amounts of the plant. Subsequent offenses are a felony.

Madison has decriminalized possessing small amounts of marijuana in private and most public spaces, though dealing the drug is still subject to penalties.

Top 10 Wisconsin political stories of 2021 (based on what you, the readers, read)

2021 was another big year in Wisconsin politics. Sen. Ron Johnson said some things. Voters elected a new state superintendent. Gov. Tony Evers and Republicans clashed over mask mandates. Michael Gableman threatened to jail the mayors of Madison and Green Bay. Here are 10 political stories you, the readers, checked out in droves.

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Since the start of the outbreak, Gov. Tony Evers has issued multiple public health emergencies and a series of related orders. 

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Sen. Ron slammed the impeachment over the weekend as “vindictive and divisive,” and possibly a “diversionary operation” by Democrats to distract from security lapses at the U.S. Capitol.

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"I wouldn’t run if I don’t think I could win," said Johnson, who is undecided on a re-election bid. 

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The board had previously not required masks in schools after some in the public voiced opposition.

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With a new order announced, Republicans may be forced to start the process all over again to vote down the governor's emergency order and accompanying mask mandate, but the most likely outcome appears to be an eventual court decision.

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Fort McCoy officials acknowledge there were initial problems with food supply, but that and other issues are being addressed.

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The idea is in its infancy and all options, including declining to pursue anything, are on the table.

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Gableman has asked the court, which plans to take up the matter on Dec. 22, to compel the two mayors to meet with him.

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Deborah Kerr said she has also voted for Republicans and tells GOP audiences on the campaign trail for the officially nonpartisan race that she is a "pragmatic Democrat."

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Limbaugh died Wednesday at 70.

“We cannot settle for half-baked, insufficient legislation that is nothing more than a political ploy to give folks false hope on the prospects of cannabis legalization here in Wisconsin."

Sen. Melissa Agard, D-Madison

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