4/20: The fight for Badger State cannabis legalization continues

By: - April 20, 2020 12:25 pm
marijuana plants

Marijuana Plant (Wikimedia Commons photo)

April 20, pandemic or not, is regarded as a day to celebrate cannabis, and this year being 2020 only further spices up the 4/20 celebration for advocates in America and across the globe.

Prior to the advent of social distancing, momentum for cannabis reform had been steadily building in Wisconsin, both legislatively and on the ground though grassroots organizing. And advocates had big plans for this day.

“We were really bummed out because we had a lot of stuff going on,” says Rachael Steidl, deputy director with the southeastern Wisconsin branch of NORML, a pro-cannabis group. Leading up to Wisconsin’s social distancing and “stay at home” orders, NORML and other groups were involved in several local events. Following the group’s monthly meeting in March however, “that’s when everything started to get shut down.” While some events, such as the Wisconsin Cannabis Expo in February, were successful, others — including annual cannabis marches and a 4/20 party hosted by NORML — were called off.

Still, the movement for cannabis legalization in Wisconsin isn’t freezing in place.

“We’re technically encouraging people to reach out to legislators on 4/20 to support the cause,” Steidl tells Wisconsin Examiner. The group has been tracking bills seeking to legalize cannabis in Wisconsin, particularly a full legalization bill introduced by Rep. Melissa Sargent (D-Madison). “That’s still the best offer for legalization we’ve had in Wisconsin,” said Steidl.

Sargent’s bill, AB 220, would create a legalized system for both recreational and medicinal use of cannabis. Residents seeking recreational permits would have to be at least 21 years old, and medical patients under the age of 18 could still receive it through a primary caregiver. Wisconsinites could obtain permits to produce and, if they choose, sell cannabis through the Department of Revenue, as well as other departments. The bill would also impose penalties for those who lack permits, or have more cannabis than the amount they’re allowed.

Sargent guessed that the bill was unlikely to pass this session. It’s not the first time she’s introduced a similar bill, and it won’t be the last. “I do think that every legislative session we have moved the ball forward,” Sargent tells Wisconsin Examiner. “The bill has been more well received by folks in the Capitol building. There are Republicans that are just afraid of the legislation, as they have been in the past.”

Others, the representative points out, may be willing to explore options with cannabis law, but are discouraged due to the GOP’s current leadership. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) has stated he’s staunchly against any form of legalization, although Robin Vos (R-Rochester) has indicated an openness to limited medicinal use. Gov. Tony Evers supports legalization.

“That said, I do know that the vast majority of people in Wisconsin regardless if they’re urban or rural areas, whether they vote for Democrats or Republicans, are moving very quickly towards supporting full legalization,” adds Sargent.

A Marquette University Law School poll from September 2019 found that 83% of Wisconsinites supported medical cannabis. Just 12% of the Badger State, according to the poll, felt the plant should remain illegal. In 2018, a slew of referendum votes in Milwaukee, Dane County, Rock, La Crosse and other counties reflected major support for legalization. The trend isn’t lost on members of the GOP, some of whom introduced their own cannabis-related bills.

Republican legislator for cannabis reform

Rep. Mary Felzkowski (R- Irma) introduced her own medicinal cannabis bill, with a few differences from other bills previously offered. For one, under Felzkowski’s bill, medical cannabis is required to be in a liquid, oil, pill or tincture form, or in a form which is applied topically. The bill also would create a “Medical Marijuana Regulatory Commission” to regulate the state’s medical cannabis program. Patients would have to apply to this commission for registry identification cards and meet certain criteria including being a resident of Wisconsin and having a doctor’s recommendation that is less than 30 days old.

Felzkowski’s support for reform stems from her appreciation of natural remedies, which she believes include medicinal cannabis. She feels pursuing recreational legalization, however, is “not even an option in the state of Wisconsin right now.” Recognizing that any legalization bill may take multiple sessions to get passed, Felzkowski says, “Hopefully we can get something done. All I really wanted this session was to get a hearing on it, so that’s what we’re still hoping for.”

The representative from Irma, who is also the Assembly assistant majority leader, says that medicinal cannabis policies from five other states helped build her bill’s framework. Introducing the legislation, however, wasn’t just about pushing for a full-blown cannabis industry in Wisconsin. Felzkowski strategized as to how to present the legislation. She was faced with the question of how best to depoliticize the issue in the state.

“So my idea was if we had a regulatory commission and we pulled it out of the hands of the legislature,” she tells Wisconsin Examiner. While the legislature would still “appoint people to that regulatory commission,” Felzkowski explains, it wouldn’t necessarily control it. “So I wanted to get as much politics out of it,” says Felzkowski, “and we empowered the regulatory commission to make a lot of decisions.”

As bills to legalize cannabis statewide were drafted and presented, others aimed to lessen penalties as the plant remains illegal. Rep. Shae Sortwell (R-Two Rivers) and Rep. Sheila Stubbs (D-Madison) both drafted bills to decriminalize certain amounts of the plant.

Stubbs’ bill decriminalized up to 28 grams of cannabis, while Sortwell’s set the limit at 10 grams. Both bills sought to eliminate the existing penalties for their respective amounts. Stubbs’ bill, however, also eliminated the penalty for manufacturing or distributing 28 or less grams of cannabis, as well as the possession of no more than two plants.

The subtle differences in all of these bills illustrates the spectrum of perception on cannabis use. Sortwell’s bill essentially carries the torch for Libertarian-leaning Republicans, who’ve tried to decriminalize small amounts in the past. At the time the bill was originally drafted, “10 grams is kind of considered a general number for what’s considered more personal use,” explains Sortwell. “And once you start going above that, then there’s an argument that maybe you’re distributing.” Setting a limit for 10 grams was an attempt to “keep it down to a very personal number.” The bill was also designed to prevent law enforcement from targeting people with personal amounts of the plant while it remains illegal.

Not everyone shares the same idea of personal use, however. Stubb’s 28 gram limit is more aligned with what advocates nationwide recognize as a reasonable amount for personal use. While Steidl appreciates conservative support she adds, “if you were realistically a cannabis user, you would know that 10 grams, if you have some health problems and use it every day, might only get you through a week.”

Both recreational and medicinal users tend to have cannabis on hand in their homes, Steidl explains. “I think an ounce, for someone who uses regularly, is a reasonable amount to have.”

Advocates like Steidl are also generally wary of pharmaceutical or synthetic substitutes for raw plant products such as Marinol, which cannabis patients reported as creating unpleasant side effects. “A synthetic thing wouldn’t do it for me,” says Steidl, “even a processed something isn’t enough. I think the more somebody can do for themselves at home, the more empowered they are.”

Looking Forward

Activists are continuing to push, adapt and organize to achieve legalization in the Badger State. Phone calls to legislators are valuable to help garner support, but even Steidl admits, “there’s only so much I can do over a zoom call.”

Advocates suggest that now is the time to use tools that are available, including joining pro-cannabis organizations, and mobilizing peers online to be ready when the state opens back up after the public health emergency. Sargent describes Wisconsin as, “an oasis,” of prohibition policy, as most neighboring states and Canada have implemented cannabis reform. Wisconsin could change its policies, too, pushed along by changes after the November elections, as well as increasing Republican support.

Sargent points out that many Republicans who are on the side of prohibition are discouraged by an anti-cannabis culture, and the overall tone of their party leadership. She feels that this is a “prime example” of the people of Wisconsin being “ahead of the politicians, ahead of the policymakers.” The representative hopes to at least remind legislators at the Capitol that “it is the will of the people that we are representing in the Capitol building. And it is their voices and their values that we should be lifting up.”

Felzkowski asserts that, “there’s nobody that doesn’t want cannabis because they want to hurt people.” Rather, there are legislators that are not comfortable,” she explains, largely due to research suggesting negative impacts from using cannabis. “So I think the only way we move this forward is by actually having a hearing, having some really good discussion around it, and allowing people to get comfortable with the concept of medical marijuana.”

Sortwell says that, “the devil is in the details sometimes for figuring out who’s willing to go how far with what. But I believe that there is overall support for a medical marijuana program in the state Assembly.” In his eyes, “the bigger issue is in the state Senate. And whether the state senate will pass anything, and I think that there is going to be a shift there in my humble opinion.”

Truth be told, he says, it might be difficult to find a more staunch opponent to legalization than Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald. But the majority leader is currently running for Congress, so Senate Republicans are poised to see changes in leadership after the fall election.

Friendly 4/20 holiday reminders

It’s 4/20, and people who are going to “celebrate” may do so regardless of the COVID-19 pandemic. With that in mind, NORML has some “friendly reminders” for Wisconsinites who use cannabis to have a safe holiday. “We’re trying to warn people to be safe from germs,” said Steidl. “Stop sharing your joints. If you have alcohol, clean your [glass] pieces with alcohol to keep germs off them. COVID is a respiratory disorder, so consider cutting back or trying some edibles.” These tips, she says, are “all good advice.”

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.