Wisconsin legislators pushing a bipartisan bill to legalize medical cannabis hope that the Republican majority will consider it, for the sake of patients suffering debilitating conditions with few treatment options. “It’s an issue of compassion,” Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point) told Wisconsin Examiner. “It’s an issue of making sure people have access to something that helps them.”
Co-sponsored by Erpenbach, Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison), and Sen. Patrick Testin (R-Stevens Point), the bill would create a system allowing patients to apply for a medical cannabis card at the Department of Health Services (DHS). “We’re excited to have a bipartisan bill,” says Taylor. “We’re getting Republican support and that has not happened since I’ve worked on the bill for the past many sessions.”
Rep. Patrick Snyder (R-Schofield), said during a Q&A in 2018, “I’ve talked with physicians and two of our county judges to hear their opinions. I see the benefits for those suffering from severe conditions that this would aid.”
The sentiment was also echoed by Rep. Scott Krug (R-Nekoosa), who introduced a CBD oil bill in 2017. “We’ve seen hundreds of families come through and talk to us about the need,” he said at the time. “Now we’re able to deliver it. For some, it’ll be too late.” Krug also supports a medical cannabis bill. “It gives families the chance to have options of their own choosing without having to worry about government jumping into their health care all the time,” he said in January. (Krug and Snyder expressed reservations about full legalization. Rep. Melissa Sargent (D-Madison) has a bill for full legalization that she has introduced.)
While the medical cannabis bill includes a list of illnesses that would qualify as debilitating, it can be expanded. Right now, Taylor notes, the focus is on “debilitating” diseases and symptoms, including cancer, cerebral palsy and seizure disorders. “The bill also gives the Department of Health Services the ability to come up with additional illnesses as long as they are considered to be debilitating,” explains Taylor. Mental illnesses like depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are also likely to qualify for the list.
“We were hoping to have [the bill] include ‘doctors choose’ which conditions to recommend cannabis for,” says Eric Marsch, a lead organizer with the cannabis advocacy organization NORML. “We’ll advocate for that in the hearings and try to get it amended into the bill.”
A Marquette University Law School poll released in September found 83% of Wisconsinites support medical cannabis, while just 12% feel it should remain illegal. The figure is up from 46% in 2014, and follows 16 successful county referenda on the issue in 2018. A total of 70% of referendum voters in Milwaukee County expressed support for legal cannabis, along with 76% in Dane County, 69% in Rock County, 63% in La Crosse, and 54% in Eau Claire.
Wisconsin has become an outlier as neighboring states end cannabis prohibition. Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota have all legalized medical cannabis, with Illinois also legalizing recreational use. “I’m not thrilled to be an island on this issue,” says Erpenbach. “Wisconsin is certainly an island and legislators are very aware of what’s going on in other states on this issue.” Law enforcement agencies have expressed concern about Wisconsinites crossing borders to seek access to legal cannabis products.
Despite public support, legalizing cannabis in the Badger State is still an uphill battle. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) immediately voiced his opposition to the medical cannabis proposal.
“Everyone knows that medical marijuana leads to legalized marijuana, he said in a statement. “We’ve already seen that some states with easier access to marijuana have seen an increase in emergency room visits and impaired driving accidents. I don’t support this plan and I think that it’s going to be a tough sell to a majority of my caucus.” Fitzgerald is currently running to replace Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner who recently announced his retirement from Congress in Wisconsin’s 5th congressional district.
Rep. Taylor told Wisconsin Examiner that the arguments made against ending prohibition are “getting ridiculous.” She added, “It’s these very old, tired arguments which aren’t true.”
Sen. Erpenbach agreed, “I don’t think it’s our place to say ‘no’ to someone who uses marijuana for medical purposes, and their doctor agrees with it.” Rather, he asserts that it’s the job of the legislator to listen to the public and observe the progress made in other states, “as opposed to ‘just say no,’ because you grew up in a generation where marijuana was branded as a very bad thing.”
Figuring out how to appease skeptical conservatives was a major concern as legislators were crafting the bill. Under the proposed legislation, patients would have to apply to the Department of Health Services (DHS) for a medical cannabis card, with a doctor’s recommendation. “And it can’t be just any physician,” Taylor noted, “you have to have a bonafide relationship with them.” Taylor described the current framework of the bill as “a tight structure,” which is based on the best practices observed in states that have already legalized medical marijuana.
Marsch said he was happy with the bill’s framing. “I’m really happy it allows patients to grow their own cannabis, because that’s really important for ensuring that they have access to the particular strain that works best for them and to keep their costs down,” he told Wisconsin Examiner.
Providing a card to medical-marijuana patients essentially gives them an exemption from laws that would still criminalize cannabis for everyone else. “In a full recreational bill, you wouldn’t have to have that,” Taylor explained. “But even to get this bill moving has been very difficult.”
Taylor also invoked the opioid epidemic nationwide. “Look at the crisis we’re having from people OD’ing from prescription drugs, and that leading to heroin addiction,” she said. Milwaukee County is on its way to having a record number of drug overdoses this year.
“Have you ever heard of someone who ODd from marijuana?” Taylor asked. “You can’t find one. You don’t have the debilitating after-effects of opioids. It could be a really good option for patients who are really sick, and they should be able to access it without being a criminal.”
Taylor and Erpenbach hope some opponents will be won over by the shared experience of watching loved ones suffer from chronic illness. “My dad recently died from lung cancer,” Taylor said. “I mean, everyone has a story about watching a loved one suffer. It’s senseless knowing that the thing that could help give them relief, which is medical marijuana, is either illegal or not accessible to them.”
Erpenbach says Republicans who are supportive of the bill are not only paying attention to the polling data, they are seeing the benefits of medical marijuana in the lives of people close to them. “It’s also experiences they’ve had with family members entering cancer treatment, or whatever the case may be. It’s a combination of things.”
In the meantime, organizing is still needed to give the medical cannabis bill a fighting chance. “We need people to be contacting them [Republicans], especially people who are represented by a Republican.” Marsch says. He notes that Testin, who is backing the bill, chairs the health committee in the senate. Advocates are lobbying Senate Majority Leader Fitzgerald to have the bill assigned to the health committee.