Michigan will vote Nov. 6 on legalizing marijuana for recreational use. It looks like the proposal — which would allow adults to purchase, possess and grow small amounts of cannabis — is going to win big. A poll conducted in late September for the Detroit Free Press newspaper had legalization ahead 56-41 percent. There is even speculation that the presence of the measure on the ballot will increase turnout among voters aged 18-34, who favor legalization by 85-14 percent.
If Michigan votes “yes,” and if a North Dakota legalization proposal prevails on the same day, much of the northern tier of the United States will have taken significant steps to end marijuana prohibition. Michigan and North Dakota would join Washington, Vermont and Maine as states that have legalized recreational use of cannabis, while Montana, Minnesota, New York and New Hampshire have removed barriers to the use of medical marijuana. Those states also have active campaigns for fuller legalization and political leaders who have signaled that they are prepared to reverse the worst excesses of the impractical and irresponsible drug war.
What of Wisconsin?
Not so much.
The state has taken only the most limited steps to permit the use of medical marijuana, making it an outlier in a country that is moving to end a failed experiment with prohibition. "Marijuana legalization is no longer a regional or partisan issue. Well over 60 percent of all Americans support ending our nation’s failed prohibition,” said National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws Executive Director Erik Altieri, who noted that a “growing contingent of states (has) chosen the sensible path of legalization and regulation over prohibition and incarceration.”
Is Wisconsin really as backward as it seems? No. In fact, a survey conducted this month by the D.C.-based Myers Research group for Forever Wisconsin suggests that Wisconsinites are more favorably inclined toward legalization than Michiganders. Sixty-four percent of the Wisconsin voters who were surveyed signaled support for ending cannabis prohibition, while less than a third opposed making the change. There’s growing recognition that state Rep. Melissa Sargent, a Madison Democrat who advocates for legalization of marijuana as part of a broader focus on criminal justice reform, is right when she says: "The most dangerous thing about marijuana in Wisconsin is that it is illegal.”
Unfortunately, this state is being held back by backward leadership and constricted democracy.
On the leadership front, the source of Wisconsin’s trouble is clear enough. Gov. Scott Walker and his right-wing allies in the Legislature have resisted the evolving thinking on cannabis. Walker is in the reactionary camp of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the unreconstructed drug warrior who rejects not just the science that favors legalization but the moral arguments that have been advanced by critics of mass incarceration.
On the constricted democracy front, the problem is that Wisconsin does not permit the enactment of laws via citizen-backed initiatives and referendums. That’s how legalization got on the ballot in Michigan, where the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol submitted 365,384 signatures and secured a place for the issue on the November ballot.
Despite the fact that Wisconsin does not allow for binding statewide initiative votes, hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites will have a chance to signal on Nov. 6 that they are ready for legalization.
Sixteen Wisconsin counties and two cities will vote on a variety of advisory referendums on legalization issues. Milwaukee, Dane, La Crosse and Rock county residents are being asked whether they favor legalizing personal use of marijuana by adults aged 21 or older. Brown, Clark, Forest, Kenosha, Langlade, Lincoln, Marathon, Marquette, Portage and Sauk counties will vote on whether to eliminate barriers to medical marijuana. Eau Claire and Racine counties will vote on legalization of recreational and medical uses for cannabis, along with proposals for regulating and taxing its sale. Voters in the city of Racine will be asked about decriminalization of cannabis, while city of Waukesha voters can weigh in on medical marijuana.
Taken together, these referendums have a potential to deliver a powerful message to lawmakers about the need to end prohibition. Voters know this. In the Myers Research survey, 56 percent of those surveyed said that the prospect of being able to vote for the advisory referendums made them more likely to cast their ballots.
They also want to vote for candidates who are open to arguments for legalization. That’s not Scott Walker, who sounded like Sessions as he echoed anti-legalization talking points during last week’s gubernatorial debate. But that is Tony Evers, the governor’s Democratic challenger. Evers said he is ready to sign medical marijuana legislation and he indicated in the debate that he is open to legalization if voters endorse the idea.
Evers and his backers should be doing more to spread the word about his position, as polling finds that 51 percent of voters are more likely to support the Democrat if they know he is open to legalization — while just 23 are less likely. Those numbers spike among the young voters that Democrats need to get to the polls.
Beyond the partisan calculations, however, is the simple reality of the referendums. If they win big on Nov. 6, those results will generate momentum for legalization. Rep. Sargent is right when she says: “It’s not a question of whether this will happen, it’s when.”
Sargent is right. But the timeline will be sped up if Wisconsinites vote “yes,” and if they elect candidates who are ready to respect the will of the people who want to end prohibition.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. email@example.com and @NicholsUprising.
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