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Retail marijuana in Denver

An employee weighs portions of retail marijuana at 3D Cannabis Center in Denver, where pot is legal. Dane County residents may be asked to weigh in on the legalization debate at the polls this November.

Dane County voters hitting the polls this November could be prompted to weigh in on marijuana legalization if a resolution before the County Board passes.

Sup. Yogesh Chawla, 6th District, who represents portions of Madison’s East and Near East Sides, introduced the resolution to include an advisory referendum asking voters whether they would favor legalizing marijuana for medicinal and recreational use, and taxing and regulating marijuana similar to alcohol. The resolution has 19 co-sponsors.

The advisory referendum would be used to inform state lawmakers of public opinion on the topic but would not enact any direct changes to the laws on marijuana use.

It wouldn’t be the first time Dane County voters have had the opportunity to voice their opinions on this topic at the polls.

Four years ago and eight years ago, Dane County voters took to the polls in advisory referenda that would legalize marijuana possession and use — although the 2010 referendum was specifically for medicinal purposes with support from a physician. In 2014, about 65 percent of voters favored for legalization. In 2010, about 75 percent favored legalized medicinal use.

This advisory referendum would read: “Should marijuana be legalized, taxed and regulated in the same manner as alcohol for adults 21 years of age or older?”

The outcome of the elections on Nov. 6 are paramount to the future of marijuana legalization, Chawla said. Legalization would be unlikely should the legislature and executive branch of state government remain in Republican control, Chawla said, but he said he’s optimistic that a “blue wave” could be coming.

“We’re looking at a pretty good opportunity for turnover in our Legislature and executive branch,” Chawla said.

State Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, who has introduced legalization bills to the state Assembly several times, also said an advisory referendum wouldn’t likely have a strong effect unless the makeup of the Legislature changes. She has not had any Republican co-sponsors on those bills even though some have expressed support.

“I have had wonderful, pragmatic conversations with Republicans behind closed doors that do support the legislation,” Sargent said. “It’s just that they aren’t willing and ready to sign on in support of it because their leadership has been very outspoken ... on telling folks that this is not the right thing for Wisconsin.”

Long-time marijuana legalization activist Gary Storck, an emeritus board member and co-founder of Madison NORML (National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws), said Gov. Scott Walker has been “the main stumbling block” toward marijuana legalization in the state, since he has a firm stance against it. Storck said legalization would have a better chance should Walker — who has veto power — be replaced in the November election by someone in favor of legalization.

Many of the Democratic candidates for governor have expressed support for legalizing marijuana.

“If we can get someone else in there, we could see some movement on this,” Storck said.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said in a statement to the Wisconsin State Journal that the debate on marijuana legalization is not a priority for him or for voters.

“After spending the last several months going door to door talking directly to Wisconsin residents, I can tell you that people are concerned about health care, jobs, education and roads; no one is bringing up the legalization of marijuana,” Vos said. “People want to talk about the real issues.”

Aside from recreational enjoyment and medicinal purposes for individuals, Chawla and Sargent both contend there are several governmental and societal benefits to legalizing marijuana.

Taxing the legal sale of marijuana could increase state and local revenue, Chawla says in the resolution.

Sargent said that tax revenue could be used to provide better services in communities.

The criminal justice system would also benefit, Chawla said.

Officers could spend time pursuing serious criminal offenses rather than marijuana users, racial disparities related to the disproportionate arrest and incarceration of people of color would be reduced, and sales could be regulated to prevent sales to minors or of adulterated products.

Chawla said public support for marijuana legalization has increased over the past decade, citing the U.S. states that have legalized personal use of marijuana — Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington as well as Washington, D.C. — as well as the movement toward legalization in Canada. Medicinal marijuana is legal in 29 U.S. states.

The Milwaukee County Board voted last month to add the question to its November ballot. A similar resolution was proposed to the Rock County Board last week, and La Crosse County officials are also looking into a referendum on marijuana.

“These advisory referendums I think are going to light a fire,” Storck said.

Michigan will hold a statewide referendum Nov. 6 to determine whether to legalize recreational marijuana use, which Storck said could cause problems for Wisconsin law enforcement if it passes. Wisconsin residents could potentially cross the state line to go to legal dispensaries, he said.

Sargent also stressed that no immediate change would result from an advisory referendum. Voters would just be offering their opinions on whether they favor marijuana legalization. It’s up to legislators to create new laws.

“But I do hope that county boards and city councils and other members of local government are taking this opportunity to take the pulse of the people in their communities,” Sargent said.

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Shelley K. Mesch is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. She earned a degree in journalism from DePaul University.