Marijuana — and Democrats’ ability to even talk about it — voted down

Republicans don't just stop cannabis reform, they shut down a discussion on it

photo of three leaves from a marijuana pot plant an a vial of oil
Photo by Kimzy Nanney on Unsplash

Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) offered Republicans on the budget committee what he described as a compromise on cannabis on Wednesday. But before he could even utter the word “marijuana,” Sen. Howard Marklein, the Joint Finance Committee co-chair, interrupted him to ask the Fiscal Bureau staff if any of what was in the Democratic motion was something the GOP had already tossed out on May 6. 

Rep. Evan Goyke | WisEye
Rep. Evan Goyke | WisEye

“Nope,” answered Goyke, followed by an assurance from Fiscal Bureau Director Bob Lang that the proposal under discussion differed from the governor’s current proposal. Goyke told Marklein that Democrats were pursuing medicinal marijuana only: “And the reason why the Democrats didn’t [put forward full legalization] is because the co-chair was going to interrupt me and not allow us to talk about it. So we modified the motion, so that we can again talk about the need to discuss — publicly, openly debate and vote on — marijuana policy in the state of Wisconsin.”

Gov. Tony Evers’ budget would have fully legalized marijuana, taxing and regulating it as well. He stated that his goal was “to correct the disproportionate impact of marijuana enforcement on communities of color within the justice system” as well as directing $80 million in tax revenue it could generate for the community reinvestment fund.

Last month Republicans on the budget committee threw that item out, along with nearly 400 other things they didn’t like in the governor’s proposed budget.

“This is an attempted compromise by bringing forth at least the discussion over medical marijuana or the legalization under certain prescribed circumstances for individuals that need help with medication pain management to have access to medical treatment through marijuana,” said Goyke. 

He explained that Democrats wanted a change in marijuana policy because Wisconsin is becoming “more and more and more of an island” among many other states that have legalized cannabis, including neighboring Michigan and Illinois. In Wisconsin, possession can carry a 6-month misdemeanor or up to a 3 ½ year felony incarceration as punishment.

“We’re incarcerating people for something that is now legal in a growing number of states,” said Goyke. 

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But Marklein was not convinced pot should even be talked about. After Goyke made his points on marijuana and had moved on to talking about another item tied to food insecurity and supply chains in the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection budget, the co-chair again asked Lang if medicinal marijuana wasn’t also rejected. 

 “So, Director Lang, going back to our action on May 6, I believe that we removed all of the marijuana provisions in that motion, did we not?”

“Correct, anything related to marijuana was removed,” said Lang. Marklein took that as enough of a reason to kill the discussion on medical marijuana as well, saying, “I’m going to rule this motion is out of order.”

There is bipartisan support for medical marijuana in Wisconsin. In addition to a large majority of the public favoring legalization in polls, Speaker Robin Vos has indicated he would be supportive. There has been a bipartisan bill to reduce fines for cannabis possession of up to 10 grams, as well as eliminating the 6-month imprisonment penalty that was cosponsored by Sen. Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls). She also sponsored a bill, along with Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma), to legalize medicinal cannabis. Felzkowski, who sits on the budget committee made no comment as Marklein shut down any discussion of medical marijuana.

Sen. Howard Marklein | WisEye
Sen. Howard Marklein | WisEye

Marklein’s refusal to allow a vote — or even a discussion — on medicinal marijuana led Goyke to protest Republicans’ decision that just because an issue  was tied to one of the nearly 400 items from Evers’ budget Republicans rejected en masse, it could not even be discussed:

“I mean, my gosh, the hoops that the majority party are making the minority party jump through … now we can’t even mention any public policy that relates to marijuana because you deleted an item on May 6 that said the word marijuana? Stop running from this debate. Stop running from the debate of the other 391 items that you removed on May 6. Stop taking away the voice of the minority party on this committee.”

Throughout the past month of budget deliberations, Republicans have become increasingly restrictive regarding what they will permit to be debated. Democrats have been gaveled down and forced to remove items from their motions.

Rep. Greta Neubauer

“I disagree with the repeated decision to prevent us from having votes on these items. This is different public policy on the treatment of marijuana in Wisconsin then was introduced in the governor’s bill. It’s different. It’s fundamentally different. It’s a compromise … done so that we could have a debate and a vote without you guys continuing to silence our voice on this committee.”

Rep. Greta Neubauer also took issue with the ruling that even a debate was out of order.

“Unfortunately, we’re not able to discuss marijuana. We’re not able to discuss landlord tenant protections today, both of which are really important to my community and so many across the state,” said Neubauer. “It’s another missed opportunity.”

As the roll call began on the vote, Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) was in a back room and ran out to vote. The budget committee clerk told him they were on a motion by Goyke, and Stroebel didn’t ask the topic before simply voting “no.”