Cannabis legalization is wildly popular in Wisconsin. A 2022 Marquette Law School study found that 69% of Wisconsin registered voters and the majority of voters in every political party supported legalizing recreational weed. Supporters included 51% of Wisconsin Republicans, 53% of Wisconsinites over the age of 60, and every racial, regional, income, and educational demographic in the survey.
If the majority of Wisconsinites support weed legalization across the political spectrum, then why did Wisconsin’s Assembly Speaker Robin Vos state that he is going to do everything he can to not create a legal “pathway or a gateway to recreational marijuana?”
Ideally, in a true democracy, if an overwhelming majority of the people support a policy then the lawmakers that represent them will work to make that policy come to fruition. However, Wisconsin Republican lawmakers have failed to make any attempt to even consider the legalization of weed in Wisconsin, even though they have had ample opportunities.
During her time in the state Assembly, now Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard sparked conversation around legalization by introducing legislation during the 2013-14, 2015-16, 2017-18, and 2019-20 legislative sessions to make weed legal and available to adults 21 and older in Wisconsin, but these bills never received public hearings. Once elected to the Senate, Agard introduced legislation again during the 2021-22 legislative session. Wisconsin lawmakers shut that bill down.
Governor Tony Evers also included decriminalization and medical cannabis in his 2019-21 executive budget and adult-use and medical legalization in his 2021-23 budget, but the Republican-led Joint Finance Committee nixed these efforts. Governor Evers called for legalization again in his 2023-25 biennial budget request, though the likelihood of success is slim.
Recently, Sen. Agard pointed out that $36.1 million of Illinois tax revenue generated from the sale of weed in 2022 came from Wisconsinites purchasing cannabis across the border. As Sen. Agard stated “this is revenue that could be going toward Wisconsin’s public schools, transportation infrastructure, and public safety.” Wisconsin residents are estimated to have spent $121 million on weed in Illinois in 2022. It has gotten to the point that South Beloit Mayor Ted Rehl admitted that his town’s budget relies on the failure of Wisconsin to legalize weed. Yet, the two most powerful Republican legislators, Speaker Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu still will not support the policy; without them, there is no chance of legalization.
I could continue to hammer home the economic benefit like Colorado bringing in $423 million in tax revenue from cannabis sales in 2021. I could write more about the common sense in treating recreational weed consumption the same way that we treat alcohol or nicotine, both of which are vastly more dangerous drugs according to a 2015 study published in Scientific Reports. Or the positive effect of legalization on racial justice and criminal legal reform, and how it would lessen the racial disparities that cause Black people to be 4.2 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession in Wisconsin, despite comparable usage rates. I could argue that we are falling behind other states with our neighbor, Minnesota, set to legalize recreational weed in the coming weeks. However none of these arguments seem to sway Wisconsin lawmakers leading the legislature.
The vast majority of Wisconsin voters support legal weed but our legislators — who are supposed to serve and represent our interests — refuse to listen. Jay Selthofner, founder of the Wisconsin Cannabis Activist Network said it best, on the issue of cannabis, “If Republicans would govern instead of rule, Wisconsin would certainly have medical marijuana sessions ago and be on the pathway to legalization of adult-use marijuana.”
The core concept of weed legalization is the same concept that America has been struggling with since its inception: freedom. Do we trust Wisconsin adults to responsibly consume weed in the same way they responsibly drink alcohol, drive cars, and smoke tobacco, which all carry significantly more risk than weed? We allow adults to do these things because we understand philosophically that freedom comes with risk and those risks are better than the tradeoff of losing our freedom of privacy.
There was a time in Wisconsin history that women and Black people couldn’t vote, and LGBTQ+ people couldn’t marry, but we corrected our ways and understood that the best democracy is a free democracy. Part of that progress will be to give Wisconsin voters the right to recreationally consume weed because of this basic principle of freedom.