Cannabis advocates switch focus to local policy

‘For so long we’d been beating our head against the wall at the state level’

Cannabis leaf in the sunset marijuana
Marijuana leaf in the sunset | Kym MacKinnon on Unsplash

While ending cannabis prohibition remains a key ambition of many Badger State residents, their toolbox of strategies may need to change. Advocates like Eric Marsch, of Southeastern Wisconsin NORML, a pro-cannabis organization, are beginning to re-focus their efforts away from the state level.

“For so long we’d been beating our head against the wall at the state level,” Marsch told Wisconsin Examiner. “I think that trying to refocus on the local level gives us more momentum, gives us more victories, helps get more people active. And so, I think we’ll be able to channel that into some statewide victories next year in 2022. I think things are looking pretty good in terms of building up support on the local level.”

As part of the 2021-23 budget, Gov. Tony Evers is pushing to legalize recreational cannabis which he believes could become a $165 million market. Nevertheless, top leadership in Wisconsin’s GOP remain uninterested in reform policies on cannabis. Wisconsin is surrounded on all of its borders by states that have medical and/or recreational cannabis, as does our international neighbor Canada. Cannabis has also been pitched as a potential boon  to Wisconsin’s agricultural industry. But the legislative gridlock continues.

Eric Marsch (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Eric Marsch (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

To get around that, Marsch and others are tackling local cannabis policies. In recent months several municipalities, including the city of Appleton and Milwaukee County, have significantly lowered fines for cannabis possession. The city of Madison decriminalized cannabis possession, and Marsch says more locales are set to do the same. He hopes that local policy change will demonstrate how much of Wisconsin actually wants legalization.

“Kind of like the referendums in 2018,” said Marsch. “I don’t think that anybody expected that [places like] Forest County up north…were going going to put this on the ballot and pass it — that there was that level of support for marijuana reform in these really rural areas. So I’m hoping that we can continue that momentum, and we can send a message to the Legislature. And especially by getting people active around this, they’ll realize that this isn’t something that you’re just going to passively vote for and forget about. This is something that people are going to be a lot more active around, come the 2022 election. And so they’re either going to have to take notice, or they’re going to have much more of a fight on their hands.”

Wisconsin Examiner reached out to the offices of Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Rep. Joe Sanfillipo (R-New Berlin), two GOP figures who disfavor full legalization. Neither responded to requests for comment, although Vos has signaled interest in exploring medical cannabis policies. Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) shot down hopes that cannabis will be legalized in Wisconsin during this session.

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But Sen. Melissa Agard (D-Madison) says it’s not a good idea to give up on the Legislature. Agard says that while some local policy changes are possible, including things like fines for simple possession of small amounts of cannabis, full or even partial legalization isn’t something that can happen on the local level. Ultimately, higher levels of state government would need to explore and approve policies to end Wisconsin’s cannabis prohibition.

Rep. Melissa Sargent
Sen. Melissa Agard

“My legislative colleagues have not been listening to what it is that the people in Wisconsin want, and what it is that they value. And, as policymakers, I very much believe that the bosses of the Legislature are the people who we represent. So we need to continue this conversation, and it’s very exciting that the governor has included this provision in his current budget.” Agard says she is aware that Republicans have said they plan to eliminate the cannabis-related provisions in Evers’ budget, but says she will re-introduce them as stand-alone legislation.

“It sounds like their concern is that there are too many policy issues included in the budget, and they would like to take them up individually,” Agard said. “So this will allow them that opportunity.” She is encouraged by growing support for cannabis reform both in Wisconsin and nationwide over the eight years she’s personally been working on the issue in Wisconsin. A Marquette Law School poll from 2019 found that 59% of voters supported recreational cannabis legalization, and 83% of respondents supported medicinal cannabis.

“Everyone knows someone with a condition that marijuana can treat,” said Marsch. This, as well as the criminal justice aspect of prohibition, are good selling points to people who may be on the fence. “People have family members and friends, even in rural areas, who use marijuana and they don’t want to see them get arrested,” he continued. “So the criminal justice aspects still kind of play into that, too. I don’t think in the rural areas that they are as concerned about racial disparities as people in the cities are, but the criminal justice aspects are still important to them. And the medical aspects, and the economic opportunity that it would provide.”

Gov. Tony Evers gives his State of the State speech 1/12/21 (screenshot via YouTube)
Gov. Tony Evers gives his State of the State speech 1/12/21 (screenshot via YouTube)

The long-time activist has been unsuccessful at speaking directly with the state’s GOP leadership, although he has met with legislative staff. “They’re just stuck in their ways,” said Marsch. Even presenting studies and statistics that debunk talking points, including arguments that cannabis legalization drives up crime and hard drug use, seems ineffective. “They just know that they have the power and they don’t really have to listen to us.”

Wisconsin’s business community is divided on cannabis reform. With the advent of a hemp industry in Wisconsin, businesses providing hemp or CBD-related products are commonplace. CBD, or cannabidiol, is a component of the cannabis plant which has medicinal benefits but does not cause a strong euphoric effect, or “high.” Many stores work as CBD and hemp dispensaries, and are eagerly anticipating a full legal market.

Woman in room filled with drying marijuana plants hung upside down
Photo by Terre di Cannabis on Unsplash

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest trade association, however, does not support legalization. In an interview with the Milwaukee Business Journal, Chris Reader, WMC’s senior director for workforce and employment policy, emphasized the fact that cannabis remains illegal federally. Reader also questioned whether cannabis legalization would jeopardize workforce safety and anti-drug policies in workplaces.

Steve Baas, senior vice president for governmental affairs at the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, disagrees that cannabis legalization would affect workforce safety policies — particularly since nothing in Evers’ proposal strips employers of enforcing such policies.

Marsch urges Wisconsinites to contact their local alders and representatives and push for reform. NORML is planning a local policy blitz, having built a strong network through years of organizing. “We’ve got people interested in this in Racine, up in Green Bay, Ozaukee County, we’ve got people all over. Like La Crosse, Eau Claire, so we’re kind of just going to do them all at once after Milwaukee gets wrapped up. Just kind of get the ball rolling. We have a lot of people in our coalition now.”