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Gov. Tony Evers speaks to reporters last week. On Monday, he and lawmakers announced a plan to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana and legalize the drug for medical use.

Gov. Tony Evers made his case Monday for a sweeping new plan to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana and legalize it for medical use, while the state Assembly’s top Republican criticized the plan as too expansive.

The debate, which doesn’t completely break along party lines, foreshadows what is likely to be a marquee topic in the 2019 legislative session.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who has been open to medical marijuana in the past, said in a statement that Evers’ plan goes too far.

“It makes it easier to get recreational marijuana and provides a pathway to full legalization, which I do not support,” said Vos, R-Rochester.

Evers, Democratic lawmakers and advocates touted the plan at a Capitol press conference Monday. Evers, a Democrat, said his plan will target Wisconsin’s gaping racial disparities in incarceration while giving people with severe illnesses access to a new form of treatment.

The Wisconsin State Journal first reported Sunday on the proposal, which will be included in Evers’ plan for the next state budget. He plans to unveil the full proposal Feb. 28.

The plan would add Wisconsin to the 33 states that have legalized marijuana for medical use. It would enable people to legally access the drug with a physician’s recommendation to treat any of a list of “debilitating medical conditions,” including cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain.

Other parts of the plan call for removing all penalties for the possession, manufacture or distribution of 25 grams or less of marijuana, and allowing people convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana to have their records expunged.

The powerful state business lobby that typically aligns with the GOP, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, came out against the plan, saying “business leaders are concerned about the impacts marijuana decriminalization will have on workplace safety.”

Rep. Mary Felzkowski, R-Irma, said she’s part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers crafting a medical marijuana bill to be introduced in coming months.

Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul, the state’s top law enforcement official, did not respond to an inquiry about whether he supports the plan. Kaul previously said he supports medical marijuana as a way to address the opioid crisis.

Unequal impact

Evers said the plan is partly about tackling racial disparities, noting Wisconsin’s nation-leading incarceration rate for black men.

“The bottom line is that we’re spending too much money prosecuting and incarcerating people, and often people of color, for nonviolent crimes related to possessing small amounts of marijuana,” Evers said.

Rep. David Crowley, D-Milwaukee, who leads the Legislature’s Black Caucus, said Evers’ proposal would benefit all Wisconsinites but especially people of color. Crowley said 40 percent of black men arrested in Milwaukee County are arrested for “low-level” drug offenses.

“Harsh drug laws do not do much to deter marijuana use,” Crowley said. “All they succeed in doing is disproportionately locking up Wisconsinites of color.”

Evers’ office cited a study by the Wisconsin Justice Initiative, an advocacy group that supports Evers’ marijuana proposal. It found 86 percent of people arrested in Milwaukee County in 2015 and 2016 for second-offense marijuana possession — a felony under state law — were black. Nine percent were white and 4 percent were Hispanic or Latino.

Evers also cited popular support for medical marijuana in his remarks, saying “the people of Wisconsin overwhelmingly believe that people shouldn’t be treated like criminals for accessing the medicine that could change or maybe even save their lives.”

Voters in 16 counties and two municipalities overwhelmingly approved nonbinding advisory referendums in the November election on marijuana — some on legalizing medical marijuana, others on full legalization for recreational use. The Justice Initiative helped coordinate placement of those referendums.

Recent public polls have found about six in 10 Wisconsin voters favor legalizing recreational marijuana.

‘We need an off-ramp’

Steve Acheson, a founding member of Wisconsin Veterans for Compassionate Care, said medical marijuana is a nonpartisan issue and that it’s time to give veterans safe access to it.

An Iraq War veteran, Acheson said he suffered a spinal injury during his service. He said he initially was prescribed painkillers and other pills that made him a “zombie” and nearly forced him to drop out of college.

Acheson said he later tried medical marijuana, and it relieved his pain and enabled him to stop taking pills while living his daily life — but not without triggering new concerns.

“It’s put me in this really gray area where every day I step out of my door, I have to worry about being convicted of a crime,” Acheson said. “There’s way too many of our fellow veterans dying of over-prescription and suicide.

“We need an alternative, and we need an off-ramp,” he said.

Assembly Republicans previously have signaled openness to medical marijuana. Vos reiterated in his Monday statement that he’s “open to medical marijuana when it’s prescribed by a doctor, but it has to be done in a targeted way without allowing recreational use.”

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, previously said he opposes medical marijuana and isn’t sure how many GOP senators favor it.

Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, tweeted shortly after Evers’ press conference: “Pretty sad the former head of our K-12 schools is now pushing the legalization of pot. Who is watching out for kids?”

Evers was state superintendent of public instruction before being elected governor.

Public ‘more open’

Felzkowski is a cancer survivor who said she supports medical marijuana in part because its side effects aren’t as harsh as those of many prescription medications.

Another factor: Lincoln and Langlade counties, where most of her Assembly district is located, just voted overwhelmingly in November to pass referendums in favor of medical marijuana. Langlade County passed it with 77 percent support and Lincoln County with 81 percent support.

Felzkowski is wary about decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana, saying she isn’t sure the state is ready for it.

But she expects she and the other lawmakers — Sen. Patrick Testin, R-Stevens Point; Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison; and Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton — to introduce their proposal this spring. Felzkowski said it is likely to be similar to Evers’ in that it would enable people with one or more of a list of serious medical conditions to get a physician’s recommendation to obtain medical marijuana.

Keys to winning support from some Republicans for a medical marijuana law include ensuring medical marijuana dispensaries are tightly regulated and that the law does not make it easier for minors to obtain the drug, she said.

“I think that people are more open to doing it now,” Felzkowski said, “and public pressure will move it along.”

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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