MADISON – Gov. Tony Evers will propose legalizing recreational marijuana as part of the state budget he introduces this month — a plan that could generate $166 million in revenue that would be used to help fund rural schools and programs for marginalized communities.
The proposal from the Democratic governor is all but certain to be blocked by Republicans who control the state Legislature. But it’s possible they will pursue a narrower path and allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes.
Wisconsin is in a minority of states that have not legalized marijuana use in some form despite recent state polling showing more than half surveyed supported the idea. Thirty-six states have medical marijuana programs, including states bordering Wisconsin.
In 2018, 16 counties and two cities voted to support medical or recreational marijuana in referendums.
“Legalizing and taxing marijuana in Wisconsin — just like we do already with alcohol — ensures a controlled market and safe product are available for both recreational and medicinal users and can open the door for countless opportunities for us to reinvest in our communities and create a more equitable state,” Evers said in a statement.
Evers anticipates his plan would generate more than $165 million in the fiscal year that starts in the summer of 2022. About $70 million of that would be used to help rural schools and programs for communities that have been disproportionately affected by past marijuana enforcement and underserved groups of people like communities of color, women and veterans, according to the governor’s office.
Evers is latching onto a trend that has been growing across the country. Fifteen states have legalized recreational marijuana in recent years, including Illinois and Michigan. Overall, 36 states have legalized marijuana for some purpose.
As envisioned, Evers’ plan has virtually no chance of getting through the Legislature. Two years ago, he proposed allowing medical marijuana and decriminalizing recreational marijuana, but Republican lawmakers rejected those ideas.
But there are signs that support is growing for a medical marijuana program and a key roadblock to the idea has now left the Legislature for a seat in Congress.
Republican Sens. Mary Felzkowski of Irma and Kathy Bernier of Chippewa Falls in 2019 proposed a medical marijuana program that would license dispensaries of marijuana for anyone with a serious medical condition, like cancer, AIDS or post-traumatic stress disorder.
The idea was immediately rejected by then-Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald. But Fitzgerald has since left the state Legislature and now serves in Congress.
Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester also is open to the idea. Vos recently said during a forum sponsored by WisPolitics.com that he supported legalizing medical marijuana but not recreational marijuana. He added that he wanted the issue to be addressed separately from the state budget, however.
Evers will introduce his budget on Feb. 16. Lawmakers will spend the next few months rewriting it before returning it to Evers for final approval. Evers has broad powers to veto portions of what they give him.
Under Evers’ plan, marijuana retailers and distributors would need to obtain permits from the state Department of Revenue. Marijuana producers and processors would need to get permits from both the Department of Revenue and the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
The agencies would test their products for potency and contaminants, including mold and pesticides. Marijuana businesses with 20 or more employees would be required to have labor agreements with unions.
Individuals would have to be 21 or older to purchase the drug for recreational purposes. They could buy it for medical purposes if they were 18 or older.
Wisconsinites could possess at most 2 ounces and six plants for personal use. Out-of-state residents could possess 0.25 ounces at most.
The criminal code for marijuana-related offenses would be changed because of legalization. Those convicted of past nonviolent offenses could attempt to revoke or reduce sentences under Evers’ plan. Driving under the influence of THC, the substance that causes marijuana’s high, would remain illegal.
The state would levy a 15% excise tax on wholesale marijuana sales and a 10% excise tax on retail sales. In addition, the existing sales tax would be charged for retail sales. The taxes would generate $165.8 million in the fiscal year that runs from July 2022 to June 2023, according to the governor’s office.
Those who use marijuana for medical purposes could, with the signoff of a doctor, get a card from the Department of Revenue that would allow them to avoid the retail taxes.
A portion of the money the state generates — about $80 million in its first year — would be placed in a new fund meant to help rural schools as well as programs to promote diversity, equity and inclusion.
In the first year, $35 million from the fund would go toward sparsity aid for small, rural school districts. The remaining $35 million would be given out as grants administered by the Department of Health Services, Department of Administration, Department of Children and Families and Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.
The program would begin as soon as the budget bill is signed, but the governor’s office expects it would take up to a year to become active.
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