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Proponents of legalizing marijuana gather at Library Mall on the UW-Madison campus in October for the annual Great Midwest Marijuana Harvest Festival. A UW-Madison study found legalizing medical marijuana could bring a $1.1 billion economic benefit to the state in the first five years. 

Legalization of medical marijuana in Wisconsin could bring a $1.1 billion economic benefit to the state over the first five years, according to a UW-Madison study.

Graduate students at the La Follette School of Public Affairs analyzed how factors such as administrative costs and consumer purchases would be affected by the legalization of medical marijuana.

Dane County Sup. Yogesh Chawla, who represents swaths of Madison’s Near East and East sides, requested the study.

“We always talk about (medical marijuana) in moral terms,” Chawla said. “This found concrete evidence of financial benefit.”

Chawla requested a study on medical marijuana legalization that didn’t include legalization for recreational use because, he said, incremental steps toward full legalization would work better for the state.

Wisconsin has a good policy “road map,” Chawla said, based on other nearby states, such as Minnesota, that have legalized medical marijuana.

The study also looked at whether decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana would affect the economic benefit. In their study, researchers substituted arrests for about 25 grams of marijuana or less with a municipal fine. That decision was based on policies already in place in cities such as Madison and Milwaukee.

Researchers found the benefit to be another $30 million to the economy based on reduced criminal justice costs.

Although there is little clinical evidence that marijuana can be a substitute for opioids to treat pain — in part because marijuana usually cannot legally be studied as a medicine — the researchers used studies available to determine about 75% of people who will seek medical marijuana would do so for pain treatment.

Researchers determined some lives would be saved from opioid overdoses, based on the percentage of people currently on opioid pain medication who would switch to marijuana.

“Despite the lack of federal-level research on the topic, our conservative estimate found a wide range of benefits, including reduced jail sentences, arrests and court cases, while also providing another tool to tackle the opioid crisis,” said Jennifer Johnson, one of the researchers.

Another major factor in the economic benefit to the state is the number of people who would be willing to pay for medical marijuana.

Researchers determined the economic benefit would be about $233 million from patients purchasing marijuana, which is not eligible for insurance coverage. The average patient prescribed medical marijuana would buy about 16 grams per month at a cost of about $10.50 per gram, or $168 a month, the researchers determined, based on data from other states and Canada that had legalized medical marijuana.

There would be some costs associated with legalization, which researchers included when calculating the $1.1 billion estimate.

In the researchers’ scenario, the state would pay about $3.5 million for a public health education and awareness campaign. There would also be about $284,000 spent on emergency room visits for children who ingest marijuana.

The release of the study followed a Marquette Law School Poll from April 10 that found 83% of Wisconsinites believe medical marijuana should be legal. The poll also found 59% believe recreational use should be legal.

State Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, on Thursday introduced a bill to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational use. It’s the fourth time she has introduced such a bill in her six years in office.

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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.