Wisconsin said yes to marijuana Nov. 6. Unlike what drug prevention programs have warned America’s youth against for years, this marijuana was offered by neither a man wearing a trench coat in an alley, nor a friend who demonstrated textbook peer pressure. It was offered instead by government-issued ballots.

Sixteen counties and two cities across Wisconsin printed ballots with referenda asking for voters’ opinions on medical or recreational legalization. The results were overwhelmingly green.

According to the Wisconsin State Journal, more than 81 percent of people voted in favor of medical marijuana. As for recreational use, more than 644,000 voters approved, while less than 281,000 did not.

Dane County touted its own affinity for the Devil’s Lettuce, with 76 percent of voters supporting recreational legalization. This number was higher than recreational approval ratings in any other Wisconsin county.

Though these referenda revealed clear public support for marijuana legalization in Wisconsin, they were completely advisory, which essentially made them a “glorified straw poll,” according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission. The results don’t inherently prompt legislative change — any decision to pass laws on marijuana still lies in the hands of Wisconsin’s legislators.

One such legislator is Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison.

In February 2017, Taylor, together with Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, introduced the The Compassionate Cannabis Care Act, which sought to legalize medical marijuana.

Everyone has somebody who’s had a debilitating disease in their life,” Taylor said. “It is well past time to legalize medical marijuana for the sake of these suffering families and suffering patients.”

While Taylor also supports recreational use, she emphasized that legalization for medicinal use must happen as soon as possible so that people with certain diseases can legally alleviate their symptoms with cannabis.

Taylor urged her Republican colleagues to listen to their constituents instead of falling back on decades-old notions about marijuana, citing how the referenda showed the majority of polled voters support legalization.

“Some of these Republican legislators are back in the dark ages when it comes to thinking about marijuana,” Taylor said. “It’s still very taboo for them.”

Taylor hopes to gain bipartisan support for her legislation. While she is looking to bridge the divide between both sides of the aisle, other supporters of legalization have taken less collaborative approaches.

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Smoke them out

Alan Robinson is the communications director for the Madison Chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and he loves weed — he knows it, his coworkers know it and even his mother knows it (she called mid-interview but understandingly told Robinson to return to the other line when he told her he was answering questions about marijuana legalization).

To those who do not share his passion for legalizing pot, Robinson does not hold back.

“[I say,] ‘You should be ashamed of yourself,’ and then I proceed to smoke them out because I know for a fact that their constituents are more likely to favor cannabis than them,” Robinson said, clarifying that he would like to launch a campaign to “smoke out” any elected officials who do not support legalization. “If I go door-to-door in their district, and I explain how ridiculous their representative’s position is, then I guarantee you, they will not be voting for him [or her] again, they would rather smoke some weed.”

Robinson proceeded with the slogan “#SmokeWalkerOut,” which he said is exactly what the people of Wisconsin did on Nov. 6 when they elected Democratic challenger Tony Evers over Republican incumbent Walker.“You’re looking at medical benefits, you’re looking at a public safety issue, you’re looking at imprisonment because of a plant. I think we can do better, logically, and I think we should.”Alan Robinson, communications director for the Madison Chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws

Robinson could not be happier about Walker’s election defeat, since he historically has not supported legalizing marijuana and in May referred to it as a “gateway drug” during an interview on WISN-TV.

The next elected officials in Robinson’s crosshairs are Assembly Speaker Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau. Though Robinson said they may need to be “smoked out,” Vos is not a total opponent of legalization, according to a statement sent to The Badger Herald.

In an email, Kit Beyer, Vos’ communications director, said while the speaker does not support recreational marijuana, he has “long supported the idea of medical marijuana” and supports “a system where patients can get a prescription for marijuana from their doctor filled at a pharmacy.”

Sounds great, but don’t forget to read the fine print: Beyer said Vos wants to see change happen at the national level first, which is unlikely to happen.

Most of the country has not waited for the federal go-ahead. Marijuana is legal for medical use in 32 states, including Wisconsin’s neighbors Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois.

“The most dangerous thing about marijuana is that it is illegal in Wisconsin,” Robinson said, referring to marijuana’s illegality as a public safety issue.

Robinson shared a story about a friend who ended up in the hospital because she smoked weed that had been laced with fentanyl. He said there would be no danger to using cannabis if it was legalized and regulated, since there would be less risk of obtaining product from an “unsavory source.”

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Risk versus reward

Although Robinson is convinced marijuana legalization would alleviate almost all risks that come along with obtaining and using the drug illegally, Donald Downs, a retired University of Wisconsin political science professor isn’t so sure.

Though he supports decriminalization, he worries about the dangers of driving high, and wonders how legalization could impact productivity. Downs said he has seen consistent marijuana usage change the way people behave, so he believes it is necessary to keep an open mind about the potential for legalization leading to a higher prevalence of what he called “stone heads.”

Think about people sitting around getting drunk all the time — there’s a health hazard,” Downs said. “What if you just sat around and smoked dope all the time?”

Adults 21 years and over in Colorado have the ability to do just that. Earlier this year, the state released data on its marijuana usage that showed weed-smoking was most common among those between 18 and 25.

But this group is not necessarily at risk. Despite Down’s concerns about marijuana’s health hazards, marijuana on its own is not deadly unless someone was to ingest 1,500 pounds in 15 minutes.

Taylor acknowledged that if legalization were to occur in Wisconsin, the legislature would undoubtedly need to establish regulatory measures to prevent marijuana users from doing hazardous things, like driving under the influence.

“We can do those things,” Taylor said. “It’s not like we’ve never dealt with regulating a substance … we do that with alcohol.”

Taylor believes Wisconsin would need to see a significant change in representation in the legislature for recreational legalization to occur. If Wisconsin does eventually follow in the footsteps of Colorado and many other states, Robinson believes the capital would reap similar economic benefits.

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“I think it would absolutely change the face and the complexion of Madison,” Robinson said. “We would absolutely see a revolution of industry.”

A study released by researchers from Colorado State University-Pueblo found the marijuana industry to have a net positive impact of $35 million in 2016 in Pueblo County alone.

Taylor acknowledged the enormous tax revenues collected by states that have fully legalized marijuana. Here in Wisconsin, she believes dispensaries would have the same positive financial impact.

Benefits to the financial sector aside, marijuana legalization may also prove valuable to individuals with medical needs.

Nature’s alternative

Marijuana can be prescribed as a painkilling alternative to other drugs like opioids, substances responsible for hundreds of deaths across Wisconsin. In 2017, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported that fentanyl and heroin-related deaths were on the rise. The National Institute on Drug Abuse also released information showing a general increase in deaths related to prescribed opioids in Wisconsin between 1999 and 2016.

Taylor cited a study from the University of Michigan that reported a 64 percent reduction in the use of opioid-based medication among patients who used medical marijuana to treat chronic pain. Taylor wondered why Wisconsin won’t pass legislation on medical marijuana if research suggests it could help the state’s opioid crisis.“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t hear half a dozen testimonies of people getting off of opioids, antidepressants or NSAIDs from CBD.”Tim O’Brien, Owner of Apple Wellness

CBD — cannabidiol — is a naturally-occurring cannabinoid found in the hemp plant. It essentially provides the medical benefits of cannabis without the marijuana high. Possession of CBD for medical purposes first became legal in Wisconsin in 2015; but as of 2018, citizens no longer need a doctor’s note to possess it, according to a clarification from outgoing Attorney General Brad Schimel.

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Apple Wellness, a nutrition store located in Fitchburg and Sun Prairie, has sold CBD since last June. Owner Tim O’Brien has seen firsthand how cannabis can wean people off of more harmful drugs.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t hear half a dozen testimonies of people getting off of opioids, antidepressants or NSAIDs from CBD,” O’Brien said.

If cannabis were to be legalized, O’Brien said he would highly consider selling marijuana to those with medical prescriptions. For now though, he’ll stick to legal CBD products.

Community Pharmacy is another herbal supplement store that sells CBD products. Public Relations representative Jennifer Helmer said part of their philosophy is supporting all healing modalities.

For CBD, Helmer said they recommend starting small and working up to larger doses.

“The idea is that you just feel good,” Helmer said. “That’s the goal, that you get your functionality back.”

Disproportionate impacts

Wisconsin is only starting to roll out progressive legislation on cannabis, but during the War on Drugs, which Nixon declared in 1971, the legislature passed several laws that Downs believes made the criminal justice system “way too oppressive.”

Simple possession of marijuana resulted in heavier punishments. First-time offenders are subjected to a maximum sentence of six months, second-time offenders to a maximum of one year. In 1989, the Wisconsin legislature also added a three-year minimum sentence to existing punitive procedures for distribution of marijuana in protected zones such as schools.

In 2017, the Wisconsin Department of Justice reported that 31,182 people across the state were arrested for drug crimes. Of those, 18,924 were for possession or distribution of marijuana.

But these arrests disproportionately affect black Wisconsinites. Even though there are 11 times more white than black residents in Madison, black residents are 7.5 times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes.

“Prohibition has its own drawbacks, it creates unnecessary incarcerations,” Downs said. “When you go to war you need to win … What does it mean then when you ‘declare war’ on your own citizens who are using drugs?”

Downs said another reason he favors decriminalization is because he supports returning freedoms to American citizens by trimming criminal laws, especially those that were established decades ago.

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Looking ahead

The referenda on the Nov. 6 ballots may not have changed any laws, but they did show Wisconsin representatives where their constituents stand on marijuana.

Taylor is still working to get legislation passed on medical marijuana, which she believes is something that must happen now. There can no longer be any excuse or any delay, she said, citing a pressing concern for families with ill loved ones who are being forced to “go to the back alley” to obtain cannabis.

Taylor also expressed pride in college-aged voters, who had a “huge” impact on the governor’s race, and who have shown through their participation in the referenda that they have the ability to influence policy change.

Robinson would especially like to bring the power of the younger generation to NORML, where he said enthusiastic college students could become “ambassadors for cannabis.” While he feels medical marijuana is crucial, Robinson is still a strong proponent for full legalization.

Ideally, he wants to see “comprehensive legalization” that taxes and regulates marijuana for recreational use, and even addresses criminal records to potentially free non-violent offenders incarcerated for marijuana-related charges.

“You’re looking at medical benefits, you’re looking at a public safety issue, you’re looking at imprisonment because of a plant,” Robinson said. “I think we can do better, logically, and I think we should.”