The state Legislature will consider a bill this session proposing legalization of marijuana for recreational use, but even those closest to the issue believe the bill will face significant roadblocks at the Capitol.
Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, authored the bill and said she expects a relatively partisan fight as the legislation makes its way through the statehouse.
In 23 states and the District of Columbia, medical marijuana is legal in some form, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and recreational marijuana is only legal in a handful of states.
But neither medical nor recreational marijuana are legal in Wisconsin.
“We have additional challenges in Wisconsin because there is such a partisan divide in the Capitol building,” Sargent said.
Republicans, who in general do not support legalization of cannabis for recreational use, control both the Senate and Assembly with wide margins.
Sargent said she expects pushback from conservative lawmakers, which she received when she introduced a similar bill last session. This version of the bill has some changes, such as keeping marijuana edibles and infusions illegal, Sargent said.
State Republicans, including Gov. Scott Walker, have raised concerns over the bill.
Rep. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, said in an interview with WKOW that the bill would probably see little support among fellow Republicans. Noting issues with addictions in his family, Kapenga said “the benefits don’t outweigh the risks.”
Walker is also opposing the bill, spokesperson Laurel Patrick told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
“This is a gateway drug and Governor Walker has also heard from law enforcement professionals who have significant concerns about the impact of legalizing this drug,” Patrick said.
Joe Erato, president of the Wisconsin Cannabis Project, said although he supports marijuana legalization, the state’s “weird politics” get in the way of his organization’s goal of legalization.
Erato said it is difficult to predict how a cannabis legalization bill would hold up in a state that has three times elected a conservative governor, but has gone blue in recent presidential elections, Erato said.
He said the partisan divides in support for marijuana legalization is due more to stigma than to facts.
“You’re getting into the territory of the emotional views and emotional opinions, rather than the scientific side,” Erato said.
Erato, who describes himself as a conservative, said he does not like to toll party lines on the issue of marijuana, but recognizes Republicans still have concerns about legalization more frequently than Democrats.
Erato said he believes strict regulation of marijuana, a substance that grows naturally, is unconstitutional. But he said he disagrees with groups and activists who insist using marijuana has no downside.
“This is a drug,” Erato said. “There are many negative side effects. Denying this is wrong.”
Sargent said the benefits of legalizing marijuana outweigh the costs in economic, health and social realms. She said legalizing cannabis for recreational use would alleviate many social issues in Madison, including the high rate of incarceration.
Sargent said legalization would enhance personal freedom and also help the economy by bringing in tax revenue.
“I know legalizing marijuana isn’t going to be the cure-all for all of our state’s problems overnight,” Sargent said. “I believe it will enhance personal freedom, create financial opportunities and lead to safer communities.”