A top Wisconsin Democratic senator has announced the filing of a new and updated bill to legalize marijuana in the state, sharing details about the latest reform push at a press conference she held while surrounded by cannabis plants at a hemp farm.
Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard (D) has long championed marijuana legalization in the legislature, and she says her new bill draws from both her discussions with Wisconsin voters as she’s led a “Grass Routes” tour across the state, as well as legalization laws that have been enacted in surrounding states like Minnesota.
She’s under no illusion that the legislation is any better positioned to advance this session with both chambers still controlled by Republicans whose leadership has consistently opposed legalization. But she told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on Thursday that she will keep up the fight because she continues “to believe that it really is the right thing for the state of Wisconsin.”
The new bill differs from earlier versions Agard has sponsored, as well as the Democratic governor’s own legalization proposal, in several respects. The location of the filing announcement is also different, taking place at a hemp farm—rather than an Illinois marijuana shop like the press confence she held to unveil and earlier measure in 2021.
The latest legislation calls for an increased personal possession limit of five ounces for adults 21 and older. It would permit marijuana consumption lounges subject to local control. The bill would remove criminal penalties for underage possession, making the offense punishable by a fine. Likewise, it would defelonize adult possession that exceeds the legal limit. And finally, it would automate the expungement process for people with prior, non-violent cannabis convictions on their records, modeled after Minnesota’s newly implemented law.
“We are surrounded by three states that have full legalization: Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois,” Agard said. “I think it’s important that we do honor states’ rights through this process but also make sure that we’re not creating a lot of tension between one state or another in the laws so that people are safer with the passing of the bill.”
“I have, for years, encouraged my colleagues on the other side of the aisle to engage with me in this bill writing process,” she said. “But at the end of the day, they’re not as inclined to sit down with me.”
The minority leader also said that Republican leaders—who’ve said they plan to introduce limited medical cannabis legislation but have yet to produce a bill—haven’t invited her to participate in that discussion either.
GOP lawmakers stripped marijuana legalization provisions from Gov. Tony Evers’s (D) budget bill in May. Democrats, including Agard, then filed two amendments to add cannabis provision back into the budget in June, forcing floor votes that put members on the record. One omnibus amendment would have restored several administrative priorities including marijuana legalization and the other was a clean measure focused exclusively on legalizing cannabis. The Senate rejected both proposals.
Agard told Marijuana Moment that during her cannabis tour, which she recently expanded by adding new cities, she is often struck by the bipartisanship around marijuana policy reform. She will meet Republicans who insist they will not vote Democrat, but they will tell her, “you’re right on this issue.”
Rep. Darrin Madison (D) is carrying the Assembly companion version of the bill. In a statement on Friday, he said that legalization “is a matter of public safety and racial justice here in Wisconsin.”
“People in Wisconsin indulge in cannabis use, and deserve the ability to buy safe cannabis and use it responsibly without being criminalized,” he said. “The bill we’ve introduced today lays a solid foundation for those that have been harshly convicted for non-violent possession charges and the ramifications of those convictions.”
Here are the key provisions of the marijuana legalization bill:
Adults 21 and older could possess up to five ounces of cannabis for personal use, and they could grow up to 12 plants.
The bill would impose a 15 percent excise tax on marijuana producers for the wholesale transfer of cannabis, and a 10 percent tax on retailers and lounges for the sale of marijuana. Medical cannabis patients would not be subject to a tax. And 60 percent of tax revenue the state generates would be earmarked for a community reinvestment grant fund.
Grants would support efforts to support industry participation by women and minorities, healthcare equity and law enforcement training to combat impaired driving.
The state Department of Revenue (DOR) would be responsible for licensing cannabis businesses. Producers and processors would need additional permitting from the Department of Agriculture. Businesses with 20 or more employees couldn’t be licensed unless they have a labor peace agreement.
Because Wisconsin doesn’t have a medical cannabis program, the bill dually legalizes for adult and medical use. DOR would need to create a medical marijuana registry for qualifying patients, defined as those with a “debilitating medical condition” such as cancer or AIDS.
The state Department of Justice would be tasked with reviewing records to identify cases where a person was convicted of an offense the bill legalizes. If the offense was non-violent, the department would need to initiate a process to clear the person’s record.
With certain exemptions, employers would generally be prohibited from discriminating against workers or applicants on the sole basis that they lawfully use marijuana off the employer’s premise and during non-work hours. Unemployment benefits couldn’t be denied due to cannabis use, either.
The legislature as its composed today might not be likely to consider, let alone advance, such a comprehensive legalization bill. But Agard said she feels reform is achievable in the not-so-distant future, after the state “addresses the fact that Wisconsin’s super gerrymandered legislature is non-responsive to the issues that matter most to people in Wisconsin.”
“It is very likely to be resolved after the 2024 elections,” she said. “And it brings me an awful lot of hope for continuing to build the coalitions through the Grass Routes tour and by introducing this bill—and knowing that we’re getting it in the right place for when we actually have a legislature that will be listening to the people in the state.”
Until then, Wisconsin remains an island of prohibition in the region amid an expanding sea of nearby states that are enacting legalization. Minnesota was the latest, but Ohio may be soon to follow, if voters approve a reform initiative at the ballot in November.
Republicans have said that they’re aiming to introduce a restrictive medical cannabis bill this fall, but that hasn’t materialized yet—and if it proves too limited, the Democratic caucus may not support it.
Agard, who also recently raised cannabis policy issues with Biden administration officials during a meeting at the White House, said that meaningful legalization is a matter of “when,” not “if.”
And while she recognizes the issue is serious, with major economic and criminal justice implications that her bill is designed to address, she also admits, “we have a ton of fun” promoting reform—evidenced by her decision to announce the bill filing among cannabis plants.
She also points to a marijuana “zine” her office put out last month, with playful illustrations and a call-to-action for voters to make their views on legalization known to their elected representatives.
“I think it’s important. It’s hard work that we do,” she said. “But it’s also, I think, important to see the benefit and find joy in that work.”
Photo courtesy of California State Fair.
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