Isiah Holmes

Cannabis Backers Switch Focus to Local Laws

‘Beating our head against the wall’ pushing Legislature to legalize pot.

By , Wisconsin Examiner - Apr 26th, 2021 11:53 am
A joint. Pixabay License Free for commercial use No attribution required

A joint. (Pixabay License).

While ending cannabis prohibition remains a key ambition of many Badger State residents, their toolbox of strategies may need to change. Advocates like Eric Marsch, of Southeastern Wisconsin NORML, a pro-cannabis organization, are beginning to re-focus their efforts away from the state level.

“For so long we’d been beating our head against the wall at the state level,” Marsch told Wisconsin Examiner. “I think that trying to refocus on the local level gives us more momentum, gives us more victories, helps get more people active. And so, I think we’ll be able to channel that into some statewide victories next year in 2022. I think things are looking pretty good in terms of building up support on the local level.”

As part of the 2021-23 budget, Gov. Tony Evers is pushing to legalize recreational cannabis which he believes could become a $165 million market. Nevertheless, top leadership in Wisconsin’s GOP remain uninterested in reform policies on cannabis. Wisconsin is surrounded on all of its borders by states that have medical and/or recreational cannabis, as does our international neighbor Canada. Cannabis has also been pitched as a potential boon to Wisconsin’s agricultural industry. But the legislative gridlock continues.

To get around that, Marsch and others are tackling local cannabis policies. In recent months several municipalities, including the city of Appleton and Milwaukee County, have significantly lowered fines for cannabis possession. The city of Madison decriminalized cannabis possession, and Marsch says more locales are set to do the same. He hopes that local policy change will demonstrate how much of Wisconsin actually wants legalization.

“Kind of like the referendums in 2018,” said Marsch. “I don’t think that anybody expected that [places like] Forest County up north…were going going to put this on the ballot and pass it — that there was that level of support for marijuana reform in these really rural areas. So I’m hoping that we can continue that momentum, and we can send a message to the Legislature. And especially by getting people active around this, they’ll realize that this isn’t something that you’re just going to passively vote for and forget about. This is something that people are going to be a lot more active around, come the 2022 election. And so they’re either going to have to take notice, or they’re going to have much more of a fight on their hands.”

Wisconsin Examiner reached out to the offices of Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin), two GOP figures who disfavor full legalization. Neither responded to requests for comment, although Vos has signaled interest in exploring medical cannabis policies. Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) shot down hopes that cannabis will be legalized in Wisconsin during this session.

But Sen. Melissa Agard (D-Madison) says it’s not a good idea to give up on the Legislature. Agard says that while some local policy changes are possible, including things like fines for simple possession of small amounts of cannabis, full or even partial legalization isn’t something that can happen on the local level. Ultimately, higher levels of state government would need to explore and approve policies to end Wisconsin’s cannabis prohibition.

“My legislative colleagues have not been listening to what it is that the people in Wisconsin want, and what it is that they value. And, as policymakers, I very much believe that the bosses of the Legislature are the people who we represent. So we need to continue this conversation, and it’s very exciting that the governor has included this provision in his current budget.” Agard says she is aware that Republicans have said they plan to eliminate the cannabis-related provisions in Evers’ budget, but says she will re-introduce them as stand-alone legislation.

“It sounds like their concern is that there are too many policy issues included in the budget, and they would like to take them up individually,” Agard said. “So this will allow them that opportunity.” She is encouraged by growing support for cannabis reform both in Wisconsin and nationwide over the eight years she’s personally been working on the issue in Wisconsin. A Marquette University Law School poll from 2019 found that 59% of voters supported recreational cannabis legalization, and 83% of respondents supported medicinal cannabis.

“Everyone knows someone with a condition that marijuana can treat,” said Marsch. This, as well as the criminal justice aspect of prohibition, are good selling points to people who may be on the fence. “People have family members and friends, even in rural areas, who use marijuana and they don’t want to see them get arrested,” he continued. “So the criminal justice aspects still kind of play into that, too. I don’t think in the rural areas that they are as concerned about racial disparities as people in the cities are, but the criminal justice aspects are still important to them. And the medical aspects, and the economic opportunity that it would provide.”

The long-time activist has been unsuccessful at speaking directly with the state’s GOP leadership, although he has met with legislative staff. “They’re just stuck in their ways,” said Marsch. Even presenting studies and statistics that debunk talking points, including arguments that cannabis legalization drives up crime and hard drug use, seems ineffective. “They just know that they have the power and they don’t really have to listen to us.”

Wisconsin’s business community is divided on cannabis reform. With the advent of a hemp industry in Wisconsin, businesses providing hemp or CBD-related products are commonplace. CBD, or cannabidiol, is a component of the cannabis plant which has medicinal benefits but does not cause a strong euphoric effect, or “high.” Many stores work as CBD and hemp dispensaries, and are eagerly anticipating a full legal market.

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest trade association, however, does not support legalization. In an interview with the Milwaukee Business Journal, Chris Reader, WMC’s senior director for workforce and employment policy, emphasized the fact that cannabis remains illegal federally. Reader also questioned whether cannabis legalization would jeopardize workforce safety and anti-drug policies in workplaces.

Steve Baas, senior vice president for governmental affairs at the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, disagrees that cannabis legalization would affect workforce safety policies — particularly since nothing in Evers’ proposal strips employers of enforcing such policies.

Marsch urges Wisconsinites to contact their local alders and representatives and push for reform. NORML is planning a local policy blitz, having built a strong network through years of organizing. “We’ve got people interested in this in Racine, up in Green Bay, Ozaukee County, we’ve got people all over. Like La Crosse, Eau Claire, so we’re kind of just going to do them all at once after Milwaukee gets wrapped up. Just kind of get the ball rolling. We have a lot of people in our coalition now.”

Reprinted with permission of Wisconsin Examiner.

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One thought on “Cannabis Backers Switch Focus to Local Laws”

  1. sbaldwin001 says:

    “Everyone knows someone with a condition that marijuana can treat,” said Marsch.

    This is a very dangerous statement, and I urge Mr. Marsh to retract it. If this continues to be a selling point, I hope physician groups weigh-in. He is making the case that marijuana is indeed a drug.

    Furthermore, he neglects to acknowledge the danger that marijuana poses to mental health. Here’s a statement from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

    “Cannabis use is associated with the development of schizophrenia and other psychoses (loss of reality). The risk is highest for the most frequent users. Heavy cannabis users are more likely to report thoughts of suicide than non-users. Long-term cannabis users are more likely to develop social anxiety disorder than non-users.”
    (https://www.cdc.gov/marijuana/nas/mental-health.html)

    Also, regarding the potential economic benefits, I am doubtful. They are unlikely to come from agriculture. Californian and Mexico already have the capacity to overwhelm any local growers. There might be some profits from distribution, but think on the scale of pizza delivery. Here’s more detail: “After ‘Green Rush,’ Canada’s Legal Pot Suppliers Are Stumbling” by Ian Austen, The New York Times, April 18, 2021. Note: Exeter, Ontario is approximately the same latitude as Milwaukee.

    The statement made by Mr. Baas of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce is thoughtful. I am glad provisions allowing employers to enforce drug policies remain in place. However, I worry that widespread use of cannabis, or even the perception of widespread use, may give the edge to other states in the recruitment of entry-level manufacturers. Milwaukee desperately needs the jobs that these employers can provide. Their wages and opportunities for skill development are likely to be better than anything marijuana can provide.

    Opponents of legalization are not “just stuck in their ways”. There are legitimate concerns about the unintended consequences. Wisconsin’s economy needs to be built on rock and not sand.

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