Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers linked the state’s high incarceration rate of African Americans to a new push for broad decriminalization and medical cannabis measures on Monday as the state becomes the latest in the Midwest to begin a debate over cannabis legalization.
Evers, a Democrat who narrowly beat Republican incumbent Scott Walker this past November with 49.5 % of the vote, campaigned on decriminalization and legal medical cannabis access. That same election day, voters across the state and in the Midwest sent a message about rising support in the region for cannabis law reform: Wisconsin voters in 16 counties and two cities approved non-binding referenda related to cannabis legalization. Nearby in Michigan, voters legalized adult use, and in Illinois, voters elected Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker, who pledged his support for adult use legalization in his winning campaign. The Illinois General Assembly is expected to take up a legalization measure this year.
Evers cited the referenda results as a reason why cannabis should now be a bipartisan area of agreement and called on the GOP-controlled legislature to pass cannabis reforms as part of the state budget.
“We’re spending too much money incarcerating people,” Evers said at a news conference at the state capitol. “People shouldn’t be treated like criminals for accessing medicine that can save or change their lives. … I want to make this clear: this is not just about access to healthcare. This is about connecting the dots to racial disparities and economic inequity.”
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Wisconsin’s Assembly and Senate remain in GOP hands, and it is not clear whether a majority will embrace Evers’ proposal, although voters across the board widely supported questions on legalization placed on local ballots across the state. In Racine County, south of Milwaukee, voters favored former Governor Walker with 51% of the vote but said the state should legalize cannabis for medical purposes (85%) and for adult-use (59%), according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Racine County is also where Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos lives. Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald did not return requests for comment Monday. Vos has said he is “open” to the debate on medical cannabis while Fitzgerald has said he’s opposed.
A January Marquette University poll showed 59% support for legalization (35% opposed). The poll also showed rising support for legal cannabis over the years. When Wisconsin residents were surveyed in 2014, only 46 were for legalization, while 51% against.
Evers also noted during the conference his own experience as a cancer survivor. A Cannabis Wire question by email to Evers’ office about whether the governor has used cannabis to alleviate symptoms from cancer treatment was not returned.
According to a press release, the governor’s plan would:
- Decriminalize cannabis possession, manufacturing and distribution of less than 25 grams.
- Align Wisconsin’s laws over CBD oil with recent federal legalization of hemp-derived CBD.
- Allow physicians to recommend cannabis for several serious conditions including cancer, glaucoma, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain, severe nausea, and seizures.
- Provide a way for those convicted of past cannabis crimes to apply for expungement.
The plan is modeled on Minnesota’s medical cannabis program, with the exception that it does not ban smokable cannabis, according to the Madison State Journal.
Steve Acheson of Wisconsin Veterans for Compassionate Care said at the press conference that he has suffered from a variety of conditions, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, since returning from combat in Iraq in 2005. He said prescriptions for opioid painkillers and other pills made him a “zombie.” A switch to cannabis, he said, has allowed him to discontinue all of his prescription medication and function more normally.
“It’s been nothing but cannabis — and that has put me in a very difficult position,” he said. “It’s put me in this really gray area. I have to worry about being convicted of a crime, and I think that’s a shame.”
Rep. David Crowley, the chairman of the legislative black caucus, said at the conference Wisconsin “continues to be the worst place in America to be a black person.” Wisconsin has had the highest incarceration rate in the country for African American men, and drug-related crimes account for about 27% of inmates, according to 2016 Department of Corrections data.
“The disparity is only getting larger, not smaller,” Crowley said. “That is unjust.”
Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach along with Rep. Chris Taylor also appeared alongside Evers to support the legalization effort.