Written by: Doug Schenider – Green Bay Press Gazette
Voters in communities across Wisconsin this week said a loud “yes” to the question of whether marijuana should be legal here, but that might not prompt changes in laws anytime soon.
State lawmakers continue to voice concerns about possible legalization — even for marijuana prescribed by doctors for cancer-related conditions and debilitating chronic pain.
The concerns come despite Wisconsin voters’ approval of a number of advisory referendums by margins of three- and sometimes four-to-one, and a Michigan vote Tuesday in which voters legalized recreational use of marijuana by adults by a margin of 56 to 44 percent.
Wisconsin Senate President Roger Roth said he believes there’s not enough medical evidence yet to support legalization, and that allowing doctors to prescribe the substance for people with medical needs could open the door to recreational marijuana legalization for which the state is not ready.
“We still don’t know the health effects of long-term use,” said Roth, R-Appleton. “I believe we’d need eight to 10 years of data to understand the impacts. … I don’t support it, and I don’t believe the support is there” in the Senate.
It’s certainly there, though, among voters in the 16 Wisconsin counties and two cities that had advisory referendums about potential legalization on their ballots Tuesday. Voters in each case strongly supported at least some form of marijuana legalization.
The referendums are non-binding, meaning they don’t change state laws, or ordinances in communities in which they were held. They were intended as a way to send a message to state legislators that it could be time to change some laws.
Laura Kiefert, a resident of Howard, in Brown County, said relaxed marijuana laws could bring relief to people who battle conditions that can’t be effectively treated with opioid-type medications, or who can’t handle complications associated with such drugs.
Kiefert said opioids she was prescribed for chronic pain left her virtually unable to keep food down, and unable to leave her bed on some days.
“People who are sick of suffering (should be able to) use marijuana as medicine,” she said. “It’s time for those state legislators to let go of their prejudices against cannabis and hear the will of the people.”
Still, Democrats acknowledge that public support might not translate to legislative changes.
“The referendum results clearly show there’s an ideological divide on the issue,” said Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh. “In the past session, we even struggled to get a clean bill for the legalization of CBD oil. … But the public perceptions of marijuana and same-sex issues have undergone significant changes in recent years.
“If we’re having this conversation 10 years from now,” he added, “we will have made some changes” to marijuana laws.
A 2018 Marquette Law School Poll of Wisconsin voters found a majority believe marijuana should be legal.
It found 61 percent of respondents said marijuana should be fully legalized and regulated like alcohol, while 36 percent opposed legalization. A poll two years earlier had found 59 percent supported legalization; 39 percent opposed it.
“I would love to see us listen to constituents on this, but (change) is going to require Republican support,” said Staush Gruszynski, a Green Bay Democrat elected to the state Assembly on Tuesday. “We have to look at what’s happening in this country. The states around us — Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois — have implemented some type of legalization.”
Comprehensive medical marijuana programs are allowed in 31 states plus Washington, D.C., Guam and Puerto Rico.
Washington, D.C. and at least 10 states have legalized small amounts of marijuana for adult recreational use; 22 states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana.
Wisconsin and 14 other states allow only low-THC cannabidiol, or CBD, products by prescription. Wisconsin limits CBD products to the treatment of seizure disorders. THC is the chemical in marijuana that produces euphoria.
Support for allowing Wisconsin doctors to prescribe medical marijuana was strong Tuesday in the communities who asked specifically about legalizing medical use.
The counties of Brown, Clark, Forest, Kenosha, Langlade, Lincoln, Marathon, Marquette, Portage, Sauk, and the city of Waukesha all supported the measure by three-to-one or better. The exception: Clark County, where the margin still was better than two to one.
In the seven communities that asked about legalizing recreational use — some communities had multiple questions on the ballot — at least three-fifths of voters said “yes” in six. Those are Dane, La Crosse, Milwaukee, Racine and Rock counties, and the city of Racine.
The exception, Eau Claire County, was the only one to ask voters to choose one of three options; 54 percent said marijuana should be legal for recreational use, while 31 percent said it should be legal by prescription and 15 percent said it should be illegal.