How Cannabis Reform Got Its Mojo in Wisconsin

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Just a few months ago, cannabis reform wasn’t expected to be anywhere near state lawmakers’ agendas in Wisconsin. The state’s former governor, Republican Scott Walker, had been steadfast in his belief that cannabis is a “gateway drug” and a years-long push by a handful of state lawmakers for decriminalization and medical cannabis hadn’t gone anywhere in the GOP-controlled legislature.

Then, in November, came two big events: first, the ousting of Walker and the narrow election victory of a medical cannabis supporter, Democratic Governor Tony Evers, in high turnout election; and second, the outcome of non-binding local referendums that showed support among Wisconsinites for both medical and adult-use.

In fact, the result of November referendum questions on local ballots—which varied across the sixteen counties and two cities in which voters were asked—has been used by Evers and cannabis reform supporters to show that the issue is popular, and popular along bipartisan lines. Earlier this week, Evers called on the GOP legislature to decriminalize cannabis and set up a medical cannabis program.

The referendums showed a depth of cannabis support across the state that surprised even those at the non-profit Wisconsin Justice Initiative, which worked to get the non-binding questions placed on local ballots after being frustrated by the pace of change on cannabis.

“The polls have been done,” Gretchen Schuldt, the executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative, a group that helped push for the referendums, told Cannabis Wire. “We wanted to show that the support was real, that people would vote for it. We were amazed at the success we had, and that they all passed.”

The Wisconsin Justice Initiative, which advocates for progressive criminal justice changes, sees cannabis enforcement as one of the biggest problems facing the state. A second conviction for cannabis possession can mean a life-altering felony, Schuldt said, and police officers across the state use the smell of cannabis as probable cause for searches that lead to cannabis possession and other charges.

Schuldt, who lives in Milwaukee, said she goes to the courthouse often to read criminal complaints on cannabis-related charges, which even for tiny amounts of cannabis often begin with an officer smelling cannabis and searching someone or their car. Schuldt quipped that officers seem to be able smell tiny amounts of cannabis “with the wind blowing in the wrong direction.” Defense attorneys on the Initiative’s board have trouble casting doubt on cannabis-related charges, she said.

Terry Polich, a Madison attorney and member of the Initiative’s board, who worked to put the cannabis questions on local ballots, told Cannabis Wire he was confident in the Initiative’s plan from the outset. “We thought this would be a good way to illustrate the fact that most people—by far—support medical, and we thought a majority would support recreational,” he said. “We were surprised that even more people supported medical than we thought and actually a strong majority of people support legalizing recreational.”

In its efforts to get the referendums on the ballot, the group lost on a tie vote with the the board in St. Croix county, near the Minnesota border, and by one vote in Winnebago County, in the northern part of the state, Polich said. In all, the volunteer group approached about 25 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties and got advisory cannabis questions placed in 16 of them and two cities. The other localities didn’t ask voters about cannabis reform either because the Initiative couldn’t find a sponsor or the local board declined to place the question on the ballot, Polich said.  

The depth of passion supporting cannabis reform on the issue surprised Polich—and eased any fears that voters wouldn’t ultimately support the initiative. He remembers one summer night when he saw a massive overflow crowd ready to speak at one county board meeting. “At a county board meeting!” Polich said. “That doesn’t happen too often. To have that kind of public engagement, we were pleasantly surprised at how people turned out.”

Schuldt said she hopes the legislature supports some version of Evers’ plan. But the last several years of Wisconsin’s caustic politics—in a state where political scientists have deemed district lines to be among the most gerrymandered in the country—leaves her doubtful.

Polich hopes, though, the referendums sends a clear message to lawmakers.“It shows you the potency of the issue and how much the public wants this,” he said. “They’re the ones that are driving this, and it’s striking that this issue goes from zero to 100 in such a short period of time.”

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