Rep. Melissa Sargent, right, speaks during a panel titled "Should legal marijuana come to Wisconsin?" during Cap Times Idea Fest Saturday. Joining Sargent are, from left, Cap Times city editor Jason Joyce, UW-Madison student Jacob McInnis, Rep. Sheila Stubbs, attorney Paloma Kennedy.

Thirty-three states and Washington, D.C., have legalized marijuana or made deliberate moves to do so, including nearly all of the upper midwest with one exception: Wisconsin. 

Wisconsin will be an “island of prohibition very soon,” Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, said Saturday afternoon at a Cap Times Idea Fest discussion on efforts to legalize marijuana in the state. That’s something she has tried to change by authoring four bills that would allow the use of cannabis for medicinal and recreational purposes.

She said prohibition hasn’t worked for a number of groups, such as farmers unable to tap into a potential multibillion marijuana industry or those currently sitting in prison for nonviolent marijuana-related charges. 

“Plain and simple, I think the most dangerous thing about cannabis in Wisconsin is that it is illegal,” she said. 

With Illinois set to legalize recreational marijuana on January 1, Cap Times city editor Jason Joyce, the panel moderator, said Madison residents will soon be able to legally procure it as close as South Beloit, just an hour's drive south. Much of the panel’s audience and state have already decided the issue – 59 percent say marijauna use should be legal. 

Rep. Shelia Stubbs, D-Madison, said Sargent’s bill is “necessary,” especially for African American men who have been disproportionately charged and imprisoned for low-level marijuana charges. In Wisconsin, blacks are arrested for marijuana possession at four times the rate of whites despite similar rates of usage. If passed, Sargent’s bill would expunge the records and release from prison those convicted of these crimes. 

“Part of interrupting these daunting and unacceptable and embarrassing racial disparities, we have to deal with the policy,” Stubbs said. 

Stubbs said there is movement across the aisle for medical pot, while Sargent says some of her Republican colleagues support legalization in one-on-one conversations, though she is told regularly that it is not among their priorities. 

However, Medicinal cannabis is among the priorities for many Wisconsin residents, Stubbs said, including one of her mother’s neighbors. 

“He’s surviving from brain cancer, but he talks about how important it is that marijuana be legalized. He tells me this every day. Every day he calls my office, he stops me in the complex, and he’s a senior. I remember him saying, ‘If we don't hurry up and legalize mairjuana in Wisconsin, I’ve gotta move to Colorado,’” Stubbs said.  

Paloma Kennedy, an attorney at Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren in Milwaukee with in-depth knowledge about marijuana regulations and Wisconsin’s industrialized hemp law, said marijuana products are not regulated at the federal level, including legal CBD in Wisconsin, which poses a risk to consumers. States that have legalized have found fungus and pesticides in marijuana, she said, and CBD products that didn’t contain legitimate amounts of CBD.

We’re consuming it, she said, so “it should be treated like a food” and “regulated like a food.” 

Sargent said lifting prohibition would put standards on labelling marijuana and regulations on what additives are acceptable. Plus, consumers would be able to select their strain of choice from a licensed “budtender” and know whether their joint is packed with organic product or not. Procuring marijuana from the black market poses its own risks, she said. 

“The gateway theory is broken and wrong,” Sargent said, arguing that legalizing marijuana wouldn’t lead young people to more serious drugs but open the “gateway of opportunity.” 

Many of Wisconsin’s farmers have already seized onto this opportunity and enrolled in the state’s new industrial hemp program. Hemp is similar to cannabis but is bred to have low percentages of THC. The state received more than 2,100 hemp grower and processor applications for licenses in 2019. 

“You don’t need to go very far outside the city of Madison to be able to drive by a hemp field,” she said. “That’s not a skunk you’re smelling.” 

Whether Wisconsin legalizes marijuana or not, the panel predicted people will still obtain and consume it, whether that’s illegally or from a shop in Illinois. Kennedy said Wisconsin residents will leave their state on a “weekend flight” to Illinois, taking their money with them. 

Stubbs grew up in Beloit and said she saw the impact of state policy on the border community. People would flitter between states depending on what was available in one state and not the other. She predicted the same will happen with cannabis, with Wisconsin money, tax revenue, and business flowing into Illinois. 

“You’re going to see a boon in traffic, you’re going to see communities grow even faster, the economy is going to go there. If you ever go to South Beloit and Beloit … there’s more crime than there is employment. And so I know the state of Illinois, they need the economy. Do you think the state of Wisconsin doesn’t?”

Correction: Attorney Paloma Kennedy said states that have legalized marijuana have, via increased regulation, discovered CBD products that did not contain legitimate amounts of CBD.