Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Racine) announced Thursday that Wisconsin Republicans are working on a plan to legalize medical cannabis after multiple legislative sessions without action on marijuana legalization, according to the Associated Press.
Vos delivered the news on April 20, also called “420 Day,” an unofficial national holiday based around marijuana.
Senate Republicans have expressed more resistance to cannabis legalization than Republicans in the Assembly, and the Republican-controlled Legislature has never taken a floor vote on cannabis legalization. But after years of partisan gridlock, Vos said he and an unnamed group of Republican lawmakers are building support for a medical cannabis program that could see the floor as early as this upcoming fall, according to the Associated Press.
Gov. Tony Evers’ 2023-25 biennial budget includes a plan to legalize marijuana for individuals 21 or older. The plan would generate an estimated $166 million in revenue that Evers planned to put toward education funding, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
However, Vos told the Journal Sentinel in January that Republican lawmakers would abandon support for medical marijuana if Evers’ budget proposal planned to legalize recreational cannabis.
“We are not Illinois. We are not California. We are not Colorado,” Vos told the Associated Press. “We are a state that’s at best purple. And purple is not legalization of recreational marijuana.”
Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard (D-Madison) casted reluctance on Republicans’ commitment to marijuana reform following Vos’ announcement Thursday.
“The only time they seem to speak about this is when their backs are up against the walls, but actions are much louder than words and their actions are anemic,” Agard told The Daily Cardinal.
Agard said she’s advocated for various medical marijuana bills during her last 10 years in the Legislature. Although she’s introduced multiple bills, Agard said there has been no movement from Vos’ end.
“They're working on something, but working on something doesn't mean they're actually going to introduce it,” Agard said.
Wisconsin: An island of prohibition
Wisconsin is one of the few states in the Midwest — and the nation — that has not yet legalized cannabis for either medical or recreational uses. At least 37 states have medical marijuana programs, according to the Journal Sentinel.
And with both Michigan and Illinois legalizing marijuana in recent years, Wisconsinites are purchasing cannabis regardless of state law. A study released last month from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau found Wisconsinites spent $121 million on cannabis sales in Illinois in 2022.
Currently, 64% of Wisconsinites support legalizing marijuana for any use, according to polling from the Marquette University Law School. An even greater number of Wisconsinites (83%) said medical marijuana should be legal with a doctor’s prescription in a similar poll from 2019.
As public support for legalized marijuana grows, Senate Republicans are suggesting room for compromise. Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) told the Journal Sentinel in January he would support a medical marijuana program for treating chronic pain.
"We don't want people going in because their back hurts and getting medical marijuana. It needs to be cancer pain, you know — prescribed,” LeMahieu told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Ava Menkes is the state news editor at The Daily Cardinal. She has covered multiple stories about Wisconsin politics and written in-depth about nurses unions and youth voter turnout. Follow her on Twitter at @AvaMenkes.