Wisconsin Republicans unveil medical marijuana bill after Evers voices support

By SCOTT BAUER Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Republicans on Monday unveiled a highly restricted plan to legalize medical marijuana in the state, a proposal years in the making that comes less than a week after Democratic Gov. Tony Evers voiced support for the idea.

The bill would limit medical marijuana only to severely ill people with chronic diseases such as cancer and allow for it to be dispensed at only five state-run locations. Smokeable marijuana would not be allowed.

The measure is far from the full legalization that Evers and Democrats have pushed unsuccessfully to pass for years. Still, Evers said last week that he supports creating a medical marijuana program if that’s all that can be done now.

Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has said that the program detailed in the bill announced Monday was as far as Assembly Republicans could go. Republicans hold a 64-35 majority in the Assembly and a 22-11 advantage in the Senate.

“We want to make this available to people, but we want to have tight controls on it as well,” state Rep. Jon Plumer said at a news conference.

The exact locations of Wisconsin’s dispensaries would be up to the state Department of Health Services, but they would be located in five different regions of the state. Given that recreational marijuana is legal in neighboring Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan, many Wisconsin residents would be closer to a dispensary in another state where they could purchase whatever they wanted.

The Wisconsin Policy Forum estimated in a report last year that more than half of all Wisconsin residents over the age of 21 live within a 75-minute drive to a legal dispensary in another state. And that was before Minnesota legalized recreational marijuana.

In 2022, sales to Wisconsin residents generated more than $36 million in sales tax for Illinois alone, according to a report by Wisconsin’s nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

Medical marijuana would not be subject to Wisconsin sales tax under the bill, meaning it would not be a moneymaker for the state like it is in Illinois and other states.

“It’s designed to be a break-even program since it is a medical program,” Plumer said.

Patients would be required to have a doctor’s diagnosis to obtain the marijuana at one of only five state-run dispensaries. The number of dispensaries could grow, Plumer said.

Only the patient and up to three caregivers would be allowed to obtain the medical marijuana.

Last year, Republican Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu said a bill to create a medical marijuana program could pass this legislative session — as long as regulations are put forward to ensure that it would be limited to only those who are in serious pain. LeMahieu did not respond to requests for comments on the measure.

In a potential warning sign for the measure’s chances in the Senate, Assembly Republicans created their plan without the involvement of Republican Sen. Mary Felzkowski, who has been the biggest proponent for medical marijuana legalization in the Senate. A bill she introduced in 2022 is the only one to ever get a public hearing in the Legislature.

The bill would have to clear the Assembly and Senate and be signed by Evers before it could take effect.

Evers said last week in voicing support for the concept that he had not seen an actual bill.

“I would think that getting it all done in one fell swoop would be more thoughtful as far as meeting the needs of Wisconsinites that have asked for it,” Evers said. “But if that’s what we can accomplish right now, I’ll be supportive of that.”

Evers did not return a message seeking comment after the bill was unveiled.

The bill unveiled Monday would limit the availability of marijuana to people diagnosed with certain diseases, including cancer, HIV or AIDS, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, severe muscle spasms, chronic pain or nausea, and those with a terminal illness and less than a year to live.

The marijuana to be dispensed could not be smokeable. But a wide array of other types would be legal, including gummies, concentrates, oils, tinctures, pills, gels, creams, vapors, patches, liquids, or forms administered by a nebulizer

Wisconsin remains an outlier nationally. Thirty-eight states have legalized medical marijuana and 24 have legalized recreational marijuana. The push for legalization in Wisconsin has gained momentum as its neighbors have loosened their laws.

Marquette University Law School polls have shown large majority of Wisconsin residents have supported legalizing marijuana use for years.