Gov. Tony Evers included a proposal to legalize and tax marijuana in his biennial budget, which he unveiled in full Tuesday. The plan faces opposition from Republican leaders in the legislature, who had asked the governor to avoid “divisive” policy proposals in his budget.
The governor previously indicated on Feb. 7 that his budget would include the proposal. Under the plan, marijuana would be regulated and taxed similar to how the state treats alcohol.
“Frankly, red and blue states across the country have moved forward with legalization and there is no reason Wisconsin should be left behind when we know it’s supported by a majority of Wisconsinites,” Evers said.
In a 2019 Marquette Law School poll, 59 percent of voters said marijuana should be legal, and 83 percent said it should be legal for medical purposes.
Under Evers’ proposal, recreational marijuana would be subject to a 15 percent excise tax on wholesale sales and a 10 percent excise tax on retail sales. Individuals would need to be 21 years old to purchase marijuana for recreational use. Those using marijuana for medical purposes would be exempt from the additional tax and regular sales tax.
Evers included a plan to legalize medical marijuana in his 2019-21 budget, but it was rejected by Republicans in the legislature.
The plan is expected to produce $165.8 million annually, starting in the 2022-23 fiscal year. Sixty percent of the excise revenue would be used to “improve social equity and help underserved communities.” The administration estimates $79.3 million will be deposited into a new Community Reinvestment Fund, which would provide grants for diversity initiatives, community health workers and small, rural school districts.
In response to Evers’ budget address Tuesday, some Democrats voiced their support of the proposal to legalize marijuana, including Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, and Sen. Kelda Helen Roys, D-Madison.
Republicans criticized Evers’ budget as a whole and are likely to rewrite most or all of Evers’ proposals. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said legalizing recreational marijuana was just one “poison pill” in Evers’ budget.
Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, said Monday he remained “firmly opposed to any proposal to legalize marijuana.” Stroebel sits on the Joint Finance Committee, which plays a major role in shaping the state budget.
Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaven Dam, said he was “disappointed that Governor Evers has ignored the calls of Republicans in the legislature and included divisive items in his budget proposal. Welfare expansion and marijuana legalization are items we have already said we would not take up in the budget - but the Governor included them anyway.”
In an UPFRONT interview aired Sunday, Born, a co-chair of the JFC, said that the budget process is not the place to discuss marijuana legalization. “If the Legislature wants to take it up and pass it outside of the budget, I’m more than willing to do that,” Evers said.
Sen. Melissa Agard, D-Madison, has been pushing for such legislation since 2013. She said her bills have gained more co-sponsors in each legislative session. She said she will continue to push for legalization even if Republicans oppose Evers’ proposal.
“I’m going to continue doing what I can. It’s clear that the work I’ve been doing over these years has brought more people on board. Having the governor include it in his budget is a big step,” Agard said. “I’m not going to slow down.”
Last week, Agard sent a letter to the Joint Finance Committee co-chairs, urging them to keep legalization and taxation in the state budget.
“I am asking you both to set politics aside and consider this proposal on its merits. Wisconsin is quickly becoming an island of prohibition. Every session that we refuse to legalize marijuana is a session we lose out to our Midwestern states in prosperity, and we fall behind in our moral obligations as legislators to ensure equality under the law for those we represent,” Agard wrote.
Agard said it’s not a matter of if Wisconsin will legalize marijuana, but when.
“You can be literally standing with one foot in Illinois and one foot in Wisconsin, and you will be treated differently,” Agard said. “We are losing revenue every single day as people drive over the borders to dispensaries in Michigan and Illinois, spending our tax dollars.”
Agard said that legalization is a “moral decision” for Wisconsin at a time when “we need to address our egregious racial disparities.”
The ACLU also supports the plan, citing their 2020 report that found Black Wisconsinites were 4.2 times more likely than white Wisconsinites to be arrested for “simple marijuana possession” statewide, compared to the 3.65 ratio nationwide.
“Marijuana enforcement has become a vehicle for law enforcement to target communities of color,” Molly Collins, advocacy director of the ACLU of Wisconsin, said. “It’s past time to end the racially biased and wasteful war on marijuana in Wisconsin.”
UW-Madison sociology professor Pamela Oliver also commented on what legalization would mean for racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
“On the one hand, enforcement of marijuana laws has been racially unequal, so it is possible that legalizing marijuana could help. But on the other hand, racially disparate policing might keep happening anyway,” Oliver said.
state news writer
state news writer