MADISON – The “first step” toward legalizing medical marijuana will likely be included in Gov. Tony Evers' first state budget proposal.
The Democratic governor told an audience Tuesday at an event hosted by the Wisconsin Technology Council that he supports fully legalizing marijuana but wants to start with making medical marijuana available, according to video of his remarks from WisconsinEye.
“At the end of the day, do I favor legalization? Yes,” he said in response to a question from the audience. “I want it to be done correctly so we will likely have in our budget a first step around medical marijuana and either … find another step for legalization or call for a statewide referendum.”
A referendum would not be binding but would allow voters to tell lawmakers whether they support legalization.
Wispolitics.com first reported on Evers' comments.
Wisconsin is one of 17 states that has not legalized marijuana in some form. In the case of medical marijuana, growers use unprocessed marijuana plants or extracts to treat symptoms of illness or other medical conditions.
Evers' plans will have trouble getting through the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau said lawmakers would likely take any marijuana provision out of the budget because they want to limit the amount of policy in the state's spending plan. He cast doubts on the passage of stand-alone legislation that would allow medical marijuana.
“I still don’t believe the support’s there within the Senate caucus to move in that direction, but I know that the debate's going on nationwide,” Fitzgerald told reporters Tuesday.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester, however, said in 2017 he's open to the idea.
Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul also said during his campaign that he supports legalization for medical purposes.
Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), who co-chairs the Legislature's budget-writing committee, said she hopes Evers proceeds with caution and that there were too few details to say whether she would support such a measure in the state budget.
“I don’t think there is strong support in the Legislature yet,” Darling said. “We just made CBD oil legal and want to see the results of that change and how much it’s helping people.”
Darling also said she's concerned about an uptick in traffic crashes and violent crimes in Colorado after its lawmakers legalized marijuana.
Evers told the technology council he doesn't want large pharmaceutical companies running a marijuana industry in Wisconsin, and wants to see a tax structure that allows small growers to make money.
“I think the last thing the people of Wisconsin want as it relates to marijuana is that it eventually devolves into Pfizer running (the market),” he said. “I want it to be set up in a way that people in the state of Wisconsin feel comfortable that they can make some money by doing this work without having to essentially go broke.”
Democrats have long pushed for medical marijuana to be legal in Wisconsin and voters supported legalization in referendums held in 16 counties during the November general election.
Rep. Melissa Sargent (D-Madison) has repeatedly unsuccessfully introduced legislation to legalize marijuana. She said Wednesday she was encouraged by Evers' comments.
“In addition to its medicinal benefits, by legalizing recreational marijuana in Wisconsin we would open the door to countless family-sustaining jobs, have the means to regulate and tax marijuana, and address the massive racial disparities in marijuana-related arrest rates,” she said. “The truth is, the most dangerous thing about marijuana right now in our state is that it is illegal.
Some lawmakers wary
Milwaukee Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik also on Wednesday endorsed legalization of marijuana for medical purposes but wants a plan to control exposure to children.
“Whenever this is legalized — I do believe it will happen — but there needs to be a very intentional plan for reducing and eliminating youth exposure to marijuana because we know statistically that youth use of marijuana is not a positive thing,” Kowalik told the crowd at Milwaukee Press Club’s Newsmaker luncheon.
A Marquette University Law School poll of Wisconsin voters in August found that 61 percent of respondents said marijuana should be fully legalized and regulated like alcohol while 36 percent opposed legalization.
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved the cannabis plant as medicine, the agency has approved a CBD-based liquid medication for the treatment of two forms of severe childhood epilepsy.
CBD, or cannabidiol, is low in THC, the ingredient in marijuana that makes people high.
Wisconsin and 14 other states allow the use of only low-THC cannabidiol products by prescription.
Patrick Marley and Mary Spicuzza of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
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