When It Comes to Cannabis, Which Way Will Wisconsin Go?

medical marijuana may get state OK, but prospects dim on recreational use

Tom Giffey

When it comes to the legal status of marijuana in Wisconsin, the times may be a-changin’. But, honestly, probably not.

Gov. Tony Evers began his second term in office Jan. 3 by calling for reform of the state’s marijuana laws. “We must have a meaningful conversation about treating marijuana much like we do alcohol,” he said in his inaugural address. Specifically, he’s expected to include marijuana legalization in his 2023-25 state budget proposal. Evers made similar moves in his previous two budget plans, but they were rejected by the Republican lawmakers who control both houses of the Legislature.

Considering this history, is there anything to indicate 2023 will be any different? Perhaps. For one thing, some Republican lawmakers have indicated openness to changing Wisconsin law.

“Our caucus is getting pretty close on medical marijuana,” Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in early January. “A lot of our members, who are maybe at a point where they can vote for it now, they just want to make sure it’s regulated well.” Likewise, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, told WisPolitics.com in December that he was open to legalizing medical marijuana. However, Vos said that recreational pot is still off the table, explaining that Evers’ advocacy for it was the “farther extreme position” that could harm consensus.

“Our caucus is getting pretty close on medical marijuana. A lot of our members, who are maybe at a point where they can vote for it now, they just want to make sure it’s regulated well.” – Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg

But the consensus, at least among Wisconsin voters, seems to be in favor of legalizing recreational use. A Marquette Law School survey of registered voters in the state last year found that 69% favorite legalization, including 81% of Democrats, 75% of independents, and even 51% of Republicans. And nonbinding referendums on last fall’s ballots in several cities and counties – including Eau Claire County – found that voters are in favor of legalizing, taxing, and regulating pot like alcohol. (Nearly 70% of Eau Claire County voters voted yes on the referendum.)

Taxing recreational marijuana could mean big bucks for the state: According to a recent analysis by the state Department of Revenue, an excise tax on retail and wholesale sales could generate $166 million annually for Wisconsin.

Wisconsin’s pot prohibition increasingly puts it out of step with its Upper Midwest neighbors. Both recreational and medical marijuana are legal in Illinois and Michigan, while medical cannabis is legal in Minnesota. In addition, the Gopher State eased its laws last year to allow THC-containing edibles, and Gov. Tim Walz says he expects the state will fully legalize recreational marijuana in 2023.

Overall, 37 states allow medical marijuana and 21 allow recreational use. Whether – and when – Wisconsin will join these totals is still anyone’s guess.