Republicans move to further criminalize cannabis extracts

By: - October 1, 2021 5:10 am
Person examining cannabis plants

Person examining cannabis plants (Getty royalty free by Nastasic)

While some Republican legislators won’t support cannabis legalization in Wisconsin, bills to further criminalize cannabis continue to be introduced. On Thursday, the GOP-majority Assembly Committee on Substance Abuse and Prevention held a hearing on a bill (AB-440) that would enhance felony penalties associated with butane hash oil and related products. Hash oil is a form of cannabis THC concentrate which can be vaporized or consumed in the form of edibles. These sorts of extracts have also been given the term “dabbing,” after a particular way of vaporizing the product.

Rep. Jesse James (R- Altoona) testified on the bill’s focus on butane extracts but the measure also covers the manufacturing of cannabis more generally. Under current law, the bill states, cannabis manufacturing, distribution, delivery and possession charges can result in felony charges that range in severity, depending on the amount of cannabis involved. “Under this bill,” the proposed legislation states, “the penalty increases to a Class E felony, regardless of the amount marijuana involved, if the person uses butane extraction in the manufacturing of the marijuana and in separating the plant resin from a marijuana plant.” Additionally, the bill also raises penalties for people with past cannabis-related charges when they face new charges for THC extracts or resin.

The role of the police in our society has been under a microscope since the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department in May, 2020. Local Policing is an ongoing series analyzing the culture, tactics and actions of departments big and small across Wisconsin. If you have a story to share about your local police, reach out to reporters Isiah Holmes and Henry Redman at [email protected] and [email protected].

James said that the specific enhanced felony charges were requested by the West Central Drug Task Force. The task force consists of six counties including the sheriff’s offices of Clark, Chippewa, Eau Claire, Dunn, Buffalo, and Pepin, as well as the municipalities of Chippewa Falls, Fall Creek, Eau Claire, Altoona, Menominee, and Durand. The Wisconsin State Patrol, Department of Criminal Investigations, and University of Wisconsin campuses in Stout and Eau Claire are also members of the task force. The task force is staffed by 12 full-time and three part-time investigators, with the Eau Claire County Sheriff’s Office serving as project director since the task force began in 1988.

James called the proposed legislation “eerily similar to the fentanyl bill that’s been introduced as well.” He asserted that the high THC potency of extracts make them more significant intoxicants, with THC  in the 80-90% range or higher. James emphasized throughout his testimony that certain methods of manufacturing extracts using butane can cause a risk of a chemical reaction and explosion. In particular, James pointed to “the open-loop system,” which he described as a cheap but risky way of making hash. “Growing marijuana in your home is not going to cause an explosion,” said James. “It could cause a fire if you don’t properly take care of your lamps and everything like that. But this process in and of itself, it’s almost similar to a meth lab.” James also pointed to the dangers of  counterfeit, contaminated THC vaping cartridges.

Rep. Kristina Shelton (D- Green Bay) questioned whether the bill would negatively impact any future legalized market. And while  James had described explosions stemming from open-loop manufacturing systems run by inexperienced people, Shelton pointed out that the bill doesn’t specifically address the open-loop system. Nor does it differentiate between people making homemade hash oil  versus professionals with commercial equipment. “My concern is if and when we—and I will say when because I believe that we will eventually legalize marijuana, I know not everyone agrees with me but I’m going to say when. …When we legalize marijuana, if we were to pass this bill…would this bill prohibit a closed-loop system that would be considered safe by professionals, using professional-grade equipment?” James conceded, “I would suspect that there would be a conflict there, statutorily.”

Although Shelton doesn’t believe people should be making butane hash oil in their homes, she said she hoped that James would clarify the language of the bill. James said he was open to re-structuring the bill, though he wondered whether the bill would even hold up if the state were to legalize cannabis. James and other Republicans on the committee continued to compare hash manufacturing with meth. Rep. Patrick Snyder (R- Schofield) appeared  not to know if hash is legally sold in some states, “or if this is something black market on the side that you got to go to somebody.” James noted that, “it’s legal” in cannabis-friendly states and available at dispensaries.

Although Gov. Tony Evers proposed a $165 million taxed and regulated cannabis market that  would fuel a $80 million community reinvestment fund, the move was shot down by GOP legislative leaders. Some municipalities, including Milwaukee and Appleton, have passed local ordinances that  make fines for possession no more than $1. In the city of Madison, cannabis possession has been decriminalized. Wisconsin’s neighboring states, as well as Canada, have some form of legalized cannabis market. Meanwhile, Wisconsin continues to host antiquated and flawed drug war polices and enforcement.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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.