The governor of Wisconsin released a budget plan on Tuesday that calls for legalizing both medical and recreational marijuana in the state.
Despite vocal resistance from leaders in the Republican-controlled legislature, Gov. Tony Evers (D) moved forward with attaching the reform to his proposal. It would allow adults 21 and older, or qualifying patients, to purchase, possess and cultivate cannabis for personal use.
Evers, who first announced he would put legal cannabis in his fiscal request earlier this month, didn’t specifically mention the policy during his budget speech on Tuesday. But the text of the plan as submitted to lawmakers offers an in-depth look at what the program would look like.
“The Governor believes it is time to join other states, including two of our neighbors, who have legalized recreational marijuana,” an explanatory document from his office says.
Under the proposal, adult residents could buy and possess up to two ounces of marijuana, while out-of-state visitors could have up to a quarter ounce. People could grow up to six plants for themselves.
The governor’s plan calls for a 15 percent wholesale excise tax on cannabis, in addition to a 10 percent retail excise tax on marijuana sales. Medical cannabis sales would not be subject to the sales tax.
According to a fiscal impact analysis, Wisconsin stands to bring in $165.8 million in annual tax revenue starting in fiscal year 2022-23. Sixty percent of those funds would go to a new “community reinvestment fund” and the rest would be deposited in the state’s general fund.
Of the nearly $80 million of that revenue that’s expected to be set aside for community reinvestment, Evers proposed using $10 million for grants “to promote diversity and advance equity and inclusion,” $10 million for community health worker grants, $10 million for “equity action plan grants,” $5 million to support businesses in underserved communities and about $35 million in school sparsity grants.
There would be separate license categories for marijuana production, processing, testing, distribution and retail businesses, and DOR would also be required to maintain a registry of certified medical cannabis patients in the state.
Business license applicants would be scored on several criteria, including their “ability to articulate a social equity plan related to the operation of a marijuana retail establishment.” Other factors that would be taken into consideration include ability to promote environmental sustainability, job creation for local residents, ensuring “worker and consumer safety” and compliance with state and local laws.
There are a series of restrictions on licensing, however. People who have been involuntarily committed for drug dependence in the past three years would be ineligible for a permit, for example, as would those convicted of a violent felony or at least three violent misdemeanors.
One permit requirement makes it so that marijuana businesses with at least 20 employees would have to certify that they’ve “entered into a labor peace agreement with a labor organization.”
The plan does not appear to set aside any licenses or provide extra scoring points for business run by people from communities most impacted by the war on drugs.
Evers’s proposal provides anti-discrimination protections for workers who use marijuana in compliance with state law. In addition to being shielded from being fired for using cannabis for medical or recreational purposes during non-work hours (with some exceptions), they also couldn’t lose unemployment benefits for it. The plan further states that marijuana is excluded from drug testing requirements for public benefits. A positive THC test also could not be used to deny a person an organ transplant.
While it doesn’t seem to specifically apply to cannabis, the governor’s overall budget plan also “recommends expanding the conditions under which an individual may have his or her criminal record expunged of a conviction.”
All told, it’s a comprehensive proposal—but not one likely to move easily through the GOP-controlled legislature.
Instead of moving us forward, the governor’s bounce backward budget is more of a political document full of poison pills. https://t.co/3vcKYp2teH
— Wisconsin Assembly GOP (@WIAssemblyGOP) February 17, 2021
House Speaker Robin Vos (R) said the marijuana reform component of the budget request is an example of Evers demonstrating that he is “not serious about governing, he’s serious about politics.”
“Instead of priorities to move the state forward, the governor’s budget proposal is more of a political document to fill the wish lists of his own party,” Vos said. “The spending plan contains far too many poison pills” such as the marijuana component.
Joint Finance Co-Chair Mark Born (R) said cannabis legalization is among “items we have already said we would not take up in the budget—but the Governor included them anyway. Now he is using these divisive items to try and fund massive amounts of spending and several new programs, when he can’t even manage the programs he currently has before him.”
He also said in an earlier interview last weekend that policy items like legalization “are better discussed in the legislative process.”
“We should have a bill, we should have public hearings, broad discussion. There’s a lot of stakeholders that care about this on both sides,” Born said. “That’s not really the best place to have this sort of discussion is in the budget process when it should be more about spending priorities and tax policy and things like that.”
Senate President Chris Kapenga (R) also recently said that adult-use legalization is a non-starter and “not in the best interest of Wisconsinites.”
But for his part, Evers said over the weekend that he’s “not a pessimist” and is holding out hope that the legislature will act on his legalization proposal in any case.
“There are lots of people in the state of Wisconsin that have passed a referendum or have weighed in on the issue of recreational marijuana. People talk during this budget time,” the governor said. “I’m anticipating that there’ll be a good push to get it through, and it makes sense. We’re surrounded by states that have recreational marijuana and it’s time to make that change.”
While certain GOP leaders have drawn the line at adult-use legalization, some members have recently signaled an interest in enacting more modest cannabis reforms such as decriminalization or allowing medical cannabis.
For example, two GOP state lawmakers—Sen. Kathleen Bernier (R), who serves as vice chair of the majority caucus, and Rep. Shae Sortwell (R)—see an opportunity to move decriminalization legislation this year and are reportedly circulating a draft bill to achieve the reform among their colleagues.
Wisconsin legislators filed a bill last year to remove criminal penalties for possession of up 28 grams of marijuana, but it did not advance.
Vos, for his part, has said he is open to legalizing medical marijuana, but not though the budget process.
Evers included provisions to decriminalize marijuana possession and allow medical cannabis in his last biennial budget in 2019, but lawmakers rejected those proposals.
The governor criticized the legislature for failing to act on the incremental reforms at the beginning of this year, citing overwhelming public support for medical cannabis legalization.
Meanwhile, voters at the local level have been making their opinion clear on cannabis reform over the past few years. In three jurisdictions, they approved non-binding advisory questions in favor of marijuana legalization last year. That’s after Wisconsinites across the state overwhelmingly embraced cannabis reform by supporting similar measures during the 2018 midterm election.
In another sign of the times, city officials in the state’s capital, Madison, voted last month to remove most local penalties for marijuana possession and consumption, effectively allowing cannabis use by all adults 18 and older.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.