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Wisconsin law enforcement officials prepare for legal marijuana in neighboring states
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Wisconsin law enforcement officials prepare for legal marijuana in neighboring states

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While marijuana can now be bought for recreational use in Michigan and Illinois, law enforcement officials want to remind Wisconsin residents that the substance remains illegal here.

Recreational marijuana became legal in Michigan on Dec. 1 and Illinois’ program starts Jan. 1, with dispensaries already planned not far from Wisconsin in Chicago, Rockford and South Beloit. It’s unknown what the full impact out-of-state marijuana will have on Wisconsin, but many officers are taking a wait-and-see approach.

“Certainly there’s a concern that Wisconsin residents are going to cross the state line and go down there and purchase marijuana and bring it back to Wisconsin,” Rock County Sheriff Troy Knudson said. “The other concern is those people will go down to Illinois and consume marijuana, not bring it back, but will come back under the influence of that controlled substance … that’s going to be an issue with regard to highway safety.”

Knudson said a result could be increased cases of possession of a controlled substance, which would create an additional workload for law enforcement officials in the Wisconsin county just north of Rockford and South Beloit. He also expects the number of court cases related to marijuana to increase.

“I think we do have to wait until the first of the year to see what the full extent of that will be,” Knudson said.

Knudson said there are no plans for highway checkpoints. If the department sees a substantial increase in workload, he added, it could necessitate staffing increases down the road.

A 2017 National Bureau of Economic Research report on the spill-over effects of recreational marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington on neighboring states found “a sharp increase in marijuana possession arrests in border counties” relative to non-border counties.

The report suggests that recreational marijuana legalization “is at least partially responsible” for a growth in arrests in neighboring counties.

“Although intentional police targeting could also lead to an increase in arrests, we have noted that it has its own undesirable consequences,” according to the report. “As additional states consider legalizing recreational marijuana, the costs and benefits of these decisions from a national perspective should include the spillover effects on non-adopting states, which our paper shows is likely to include law enforcement and criminal justice costs in addition to other social harms associated with increases in arrests and/or use of marijuana.”

The report does not explore the full cost of such an increase in arrests.

In addition, a November working paper from Utah State University’s Center for Growth and Opportunity says marijuana legalization in Washington caused an 18% decrease in alcohol-related traffic crashes in neighboring Idaho within a one-hour drive from a Washington marijuana retailer.

“As marijuana becomes easier for consumers to access, individuals drink less, as seen in fewer alcohol-related car crashes in Idaho,” according to a summary of the working paper. “Policymakers should consider that there are trade-offs involved in setting drug and alcohol policies that influence public safety and the prevalence of dangerous driving.”

Attorney General Josh Kaul said it’s difficult to anticipate exactly what kind of an impact legalized marijuana in bordering states will have on law enforcement in Wisconsin.

“If people are going to Chicago because of the legalization of marijuana, I encourage them to stay overnight and make sure that they’re safe before they go on the roads,” Kaul said. “It’s really important that they be aware that can affect their ability to drive safely and we want to make sure people stay off the roads if they are impaired. That’s where this can become a real public safety challenge for the state.”

Sgt. Todd Brehm of the Wisconsin State Patrol said the state also doesn’t have immediate plans for a change in enforcement tactics.

“I don’t want to say it’s going to be reactive, but we’re not going to stack troopers on the Illinois border in southern Wisconsin when the legalization takes effect,” Brehm said. “We focus on the current laws, and it’s illegal in Wisconsin.”

Legislation here

In Wisconsin, attempts by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to legalize marijuana — both for medicinal and recreational purposes — have failed to gain any traction with leadership in the Assembly and Senate.

Just weeks ago, Rep. Mary Felzkowski, R-Irma, and Sen. Kathy Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls, introduced a bill to create a regulatory framework for medical marijuana, but the proposal was met with near-immediate opposition from Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, who has taken a hard stance against both medical and recreational marijuana legalization. Fitzgerald, who is running for an open congressional seat, said he did not believe there was enough support from Senate Republicans to pass the bill.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has said he is open to medical marijuana, but he recently told The Associated Press he does not see legislation allowing that next year.

Vos said about half of the 63-member GOP caucus supports medical marijuana.

Earlier this year, Republicans nixed Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ proposal in the state budget to decriminalize marijuana and legalize it for medical use.

In September, Sen. Patrick Testin, R-Stevens Point, joined Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-West Point, in the first bipartisan bill since 2001 to legalize medical marijuana, but the bill hasn’t advanced. The bill garnered support from three other Assembly Republicans: Todd Novak, of Dodgeville; Joel Kitchens, of Sturgeon Bay; and James Edming, of Glen Flora.

Last spring, a bill by Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, proposed to legalize both recreational and medical marijuana, but it also failed to gain traction in the Capitol.

A Marquette Law School Poll released in April showed 59% of Wisconsinites said marijuana use should be legal, while 83% said it should be legal for medical purposes with a doctor’s prescription.

In November, Evers signed into law updates to the state’s rapidly expanding hemp industry. The law brings the state’s hemp program more in line with the 2018 federal Farm Bill.

Hemp, which can be used to make many things such as paper and clothes, contains a small amount of THC, but not enough to get a user high.

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