Wisconsin’s next growth industry?
The Badger State is still far from legalizing marijuana, but there’s a business case for going pro-pot.
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From the pages of In Business magazine.
Advocates for legalizing marijuana believe that if there was ever a time to make a strong business case for the legalization of pot in Wisconsin — medically, recreationally, or commercially — it’s now.
Well over half of Wisconsinites believe marijuana should be legalized, according to a July 2016 Marquette Law School poll. Further, 59% of poll respondents said marijuana should be regulated like alcohol, a sizeable jump from the 46% who said they supported ending the prohibition on pot in a 2014 Marquette poll. Two years hence, it’s likely the number of Wisconsin residents pulling for legal pot is even higher, if national trends are to be believed.
An October 2017 Gallup poll showed 64% of Americans support full legalization of marijuana, a number not seen in almost 50 years of polling by the organization. The tide is even turning for Republicans, who have been slower to endorse legal pot. A majority of Republicans — 51%— now say they support legalizing marijuana, according to Gallup. That’s a 9% increase from just a year ago. Additionally, 72% of Democrats and 67% of independents also support legal marijuana.
The Badger State took its first, cautious steps toward a deeper dive into the legal cannabis waters in 2017 with the passage of two pieces of legislation that were the equivalent of dipping a toe in to test the temperature.
The first measure lifted a 60-year ban on growing industrial hemp, which has low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical that gives marijuana, a related cannabis sativa plant, its psychoactive properties.
State lawmakers also unanimously relaxed restrictions on possession of cannabidiol, or CBD oil, a medicinal extract of hemp that proponents say reduces pain, anxiety, nausea, and seizures associated with a number of debilitating diseases.
Despite these developments, that’s as far as many lawmakers in the GOP-controlled Legislature appear willing to go. Other proposals, authored by Democrats pushing for more deliberate legalization for medical or recreational marijuana, have repeatedly stalled at the committee level.
Still, those who advocate for legal cannabis in Wisconsin maintain that it’s not a matter of if Wisconsin will make marijuana legal but when and how that will look. We recognize there are two sides to this issue, but we wanted to give advocates an opportunity to make a business development case for legalizing pot.
Wisconsin’s path to legalization
Wisconsin faces a few hurdles when working toward legalization, notes Shelley Kennedy, a board member for the Madison chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
“The biggest issue is that our state constitution does not allow for statewide binding ballot initiatives,” explains Kennedy. “The law must be changed through the legislative process, which brings us to our next issue and that is our politicians. The majority of our state representatives are anti-marijuana, and won’t even allow medical or recreational marijuana bills to have a hearing, much less a vote. To make progress as a state, we must elect representatives who are in favor of marijuana law reform.”
One of those lawmakers in favor of reform is Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison. In August of 2017, Sargent introduced Assembly Bill 482, a 100-plus-page bill that seeks to legalize both medical and recreational marijuana and put a regulatory system for it in place. At our editorial deadline, it had yet to have a hearing in the Assembly Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, and prospects were dim that it would receive attention before the Assembly session ended in March.
AB 482 is Sargent’s third attempt to put forth legalization legislation, and each version has been more comprehensive than the previous one. State fiscal estimates from the Department of Revenue project $138 million in taxes and fees would be generated annually by the third year after passage of AB 482. The costs of a legal marijuana program are just a fraction of that — $346,000 in set-up costs, $156,000 to administer the program annually, and $1.2 million for the salaries of 10 excise tax agents, a supervisor, and a criminal investigator.
It’s been a while since a bill seeking to legalize only medical marijuana has received a hearing in the Wisconsin Legislature — 2009 to be exact.
“Bills to legalize marijuana for medicinal and recreational purposes, respectively, have [simply] stalled in the Wisconsin Legislature,” says Sargent. “In Wisconsin, it is at the discretion of the legislative committee chairs whether or not they want to hold a public hearing. The chair for the committee to which my bill legalizing marijuana was referred has not expressed support for the bill and has not agreed to hold a public hearing on the bill.”
Sargent says she’s not familiar with any plans in Wisconsin to take the constitutional amendment route for full legalization, as has been done in other states, and she’s not sure the state is at the stage where that would be the best path forward.
“I think many states have taken similar routes via referenda because it often leaves legalization in the hands of voters, giving elected officials some political cover on a contentious issue like this,” Sargent explains. “In Wisconsin, however, where our process requires passage in two consecutive legislative sessions and then is subject to voter approval, pursuing a constitutional amendment seems like a counterintuitive strategy.
“I’d like to see my bill passed by the Legislature first,” she adds, “and then if we want to go back to amend the constitution later, we can.”