A bid to bring legalization to the Badger State started in earnest last week, with Democratic lawmakers in Wisconsin announcing legislation on Sept. 22 that would end the prohibition on recreational cannabis.
The bill was introduced by state Sen. Melissa Agard and state House Rep. Darrin B. Madison.
Agard, who is the minority leader in the Wisconsin state Senate, announced the legislation at an event held at a Wisconsin hemp farm and said that the status quo poses more harm than marijuana.
“I’ve said this time and time again, we know that the most dangerous thing about cannabis in Wisconsin is that it remains illegal,” Agard said, as quoted by local news station WSAW. “For the past decade, I have worked to undo Wisconsin’s antiquated and deeply unjust marijuana policies and put our state on a prosperous path forward.”
Under the proposal, adults in Wisconsin aged 21 and older could legally have marijuana in their possession. The measure would also lay the groundwork for a regulated cannabis market to launch in the state.
If it were to become law, Wisconsin would join nearly 40 other states in the country to permit adult-use marijuana. That includes many of Wisconsin’s neighbors in the Great Lakes region, which Agard said has resulted in lost revenue for the Badger State.
“Right now, we are seeing our hard-earned money go across the border to Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota to the tune of tens of millions of dollars each year. That is money we could be reinvesting to help support our friends and neighbors and make our state a place where people want to live, work, and play,” Agard said, as quoted by WSAW.
In a statement of his own, Madison said that legalizing cannabis “is a matter of public safety and racial justice here in Wisconsin.”
“People in Wisconsin indulge in cannabis use, and deserve the ability to buy safe cannabis and use it responsibly without being criminalized. According to the ACLU, Black people were 4.24 times more likely to be arrested than white people in Wisconsin during 2018. Similar disparities exist in convictions, leading to immeasurable harm to black communities in Wisconsin. The bill we’ve introduced today lays a solid foundation for those that have been harshly convicted for non-violent possession charges and the ramifications of those Convictions,” Madison said.
Polling data likewise shows that marijuana legalization is popular with residents in Wisconsin.
“Wisconsin is ready to legalize it—69% of Wisconsinites, including a majority of Republicans, support the full legalization of marijuana. It is way past time that our state honors the will of the majority and seizes the many positive economic and social benefits that cannabis legalization has to offer. Let’s join folks in over half the nation who have said ‘yes’ to putting the half-baked politics of prohibition behind us and set our expectations higher,” Agard said in a press release.
The Republican-controlled state legislature, however, may not be ready. Despite broad public support, as well as the backing from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, GOP lawmakers in Wisconsin have thus far resisted legalization.
Last spring, Republicans in the legislature killed a proposal to legalize cannabis, as well as hundreds of other Democratic-sponsored measures.
“These aren’t fringe ideas, controversial concepts, or Republican or Democratic priorities—they’re about doing the right thing. With a historic surplus comes historic responsibility, and today, when we can afford to do more, this vote is foolish and a wasted opportunity,” Evers said at the time.
Evers, who was elected as governor of the state in 2018 and re-elected last year, has long been a vocal champion of marijuana legalization.
Last year, Evers issued dozens of pardons, including several for individuals who had previously been convicted of marijuana-related offenses.
“There is power in redemption and forgiveness, especially for folks who’ve been working to move beyond their past mistakes to be productive, positive members of their communities,” Evers said in a statement released at the time. “I’m grateful for being able to give a second chance to these individuals who’ve worked hard to do just that.”
Earlier last year, Evers vetoed a GOP-backed measure that would have imposed more stringent penalties for those who get busted for pot, calling it “another step in the wrong direction.”
“I am vetoing this bill in its entirety because I object to creating additional criminal offenses or penalties related to marijuana use,” Evers said in 2022 in a letter to the assembly.
“It is widely accepted, and, indeed, research over the course of the last decade confirms, that marijuana criminalization has had a disproportionate impact on communities of color, especially in Wisconsin where have long-standing racial disparities in incarceration rates,” Evers added.
Evers concluded his letter and explained his interest in justice reform.
“State across our country—both Democrat and Republican-controlled alike—have and are taking meaningful steps to address increased incarceration rates and reduce racial disparities by investing in substance use treatment, community reentry programming, alternatives to incarceration, rehabilitation and other data-driven, evidence-based practices we know are essential solutions to reforming our justice system,” the governor continued regarding the issue. “The data and the science are clear on this issue, and I welcome the Legislature to start having meaningful conversations around justice reform in Wisconsin.”