Republican lawmakers whose districts are near the state’s southern border say Illinois’ move to legalize recreational marijuana doesn’t change their approach to the issue in Wisconsin.
Still, the legislators said they’d be open to taking a look at loosening regulations surrounding medical marijuana — a topic Gov. Tony Evers calls one of his "top priorities" and something Assembly Speaker Robin Vos is hoping to discuss with his caucus.
With Illinois residents on track to be able to buy marjiuana from licensed sellers in about six months, weed legalized in Michigan after voters approved a referendum in the fall and Minnesota’s restrictive medical marijuana program still underway, Wisconsin is surrounded by states with different approaches to and regulations of marijuana.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker officially signed into law a bill to legalize the drug there last week. But for two Republican representatives whose districts touch the Wisconsin-Illinois border, the action doesn’t signal a sea change further north.
“I don’t think (the law) changes thinking or opinions on the issue overall,” Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, wrote in an email. “I think it brings more attention to the policy debate, especially with the media coverage in the state-line area.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Samantha Kerkman said Illinois’ actions on recreational marijuana are different than what the state’s northern neighbor would consider.
“I don’t think Wisconsin and the Legislature are (on board) with recreational, just in talking to my colleagues,” the Salem Republican said.
But she said Illinois’ decision could affect public safety, as her district sees a a lot of residents of both states commuting on highways daily.
Both she and Loudenbeck said while they have reservations about legalizing medical marijuana, they’re willing to have a conversation surrounding the medicinal uses of the drug. That’s a topic Vos said he wants to have a discussion about this fall in order to get a handle on "where Republicans really stand on that topic."
The Rochester Republican, whose southeastern Wisconsin district sits just north the state’s border with Illinois, also dismissed the notion that other Midwestern states’ moves to legalize recreational marijuana would change the calculus in Wisconsin.
“I think if all they’ve got to offer people is high taxes, high regulations, lower home values and marijuana, that should not be an economic growth strategy,” he said of Illinois in comments to reporters Friday.
The budget GOP legislators approved last week rejected Gov. Tony Evers' proposal to legalize medical marijuana and decriminalize the possession of small amounts of weed.
Vos said the governor's plan "created more problems than they created opportunities,” noting some Republicans see legalizing medicinal use as “a slippery slope toward recreational.”
But Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff countered the governor’s budget “offered a rational path forward on medical marijuana.
“It’s too bad that Robin Vos won’t listen to the will of the people,” she said.
Evers this week told reporters medical marijuana is one of his four "top priorities" when looking toward the fall.
Still, even if the Assembly Republican caucus were to get on board with a medical marijuana plan, the issue would face an uphill battle in the state Senate.
"I still don’t think there’s enough support in the caucus for (medical marijuana)," Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, told reporters Wednesday. "I don't support the idea right now. And I think I’ve got members that probably would fall into that same category. But I haven’t really taken the temperature."
The state has seen a variety of bills in recent years relating to marijuana. Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, has repeatedly introduced a bill to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes, an effort that hasn’t gained widespread traction in the GOP-controlled Legislature.
But Wisconsin lawmakers have moved to ease access to cannabidiol, or CBD oil, a substance derived from marijuana plants that has been used to treat seizures in children and a measure both Kerkman and Loudenbeck voted to support. The Legislature also approved an industrial hemp program.
Others, meanwhile, sought to target decriminalization. A bipartisan group of lawmakers last session put forward a bill that would have reduced the maximum penalty for possessing 10 grams or less of marijuana to a municipal violation, with a forfeiture of $100.
The bill, backed by former Rep. Adam Jarchow, R-Balsam Lake, and Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, didn’t get anywhere.
But Goyke’s office said the lawmaker is looking to re-introduce the legislation later this session, though he’s still working to find a Republican co-author, following Jarchow’s departure from the Legislature.
Kerkman, though, said efforts surrounding decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana or expungement for those offenses is “a separate conversation” from discussions surrounding the legalization of medical marijuana.
“Those are more on the law enforcement side, I truly, truly believe,” she said.
Loudenbeck agreed, writing in an email the bill is “a slippery slope to full statewide recreational legalization which is a bridge too far for me right now.”
“It’s important to note, communities already have the ability under current law to decriminalize at the local level if they wish,” she said.