Republican legislative gerrymandering may blunt Wisconsin voters support of cannabis legalization

Posted: November 27, 2018 by Gary Storck
Category: Politics

In less than six weeks, on Jan. 7, 2019, Gov. Scott Walker will leave office and Gov.-elect Tony Evers will be sworn in as Wisconsin’s 46th governor, Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul, other state elected officials and lawmakers will be sworn in as well as the new legislative session begins.

I have been analyzing results from the Nov. 6 elections, and despite all 18 city and county cannabis advisory referendums sweeping to victory as I had predicted, extreme gerrymandering of legislative districts has left Republicans still holding large majorities in both houses of the Wisconsin legislature.

Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald has been hostile to any cannabis law reform throughout his career and while Assembly Speaker Robin Vos claims he supports medical cannabis if it is regulated like oxycontin, he has said he wants the federal government to legalize it first before Wisconsin would act.

What is the next step? Is there any chance of even a watered down bill this coming session? Could cannabis industry lobbying change the dynamic? Michigan voters legalized cannabis Nov. 6 and new Illinois Gov. Pritzker has said he wants to legalize by May. Minnesota’s incoming governor Tim Walz has also been open to legalization and met with former Gov. Jesse Ventura to discuss it. Could legalization in neighboring states change Wisconsin lawmaker’s minds? Are they willing to let other states have those jobs and revenues?

As of Dec. 6, Michigan adults over the age of 21 can possess and consume marijuana in the privacy of their homes. The state has one year to develop rules for a commercial marijuana industry in the state, and has to accept the first business license applications in December 2019.

That’s a factor, so is what the U.S. Congress does, and it is more likely to act with Democrats now in control of the House. But something big has to crack for it to go through in Wisconsin.

The governor of Wisconsin cannot pass laws by decree: any cannabis bill must get at least a simple majority in each house. In the senate that’s a minimum 17 votes from the 33-seat chamber, and in the Assembly, that’s at least 50 of the 99-seat chamber. With the GOP holding wide majorities and committee chairmanships, it seems unlikely any Democratic-sponsored cannabis legalization bills will be allowed to move, and that no GOP legalization bills will be introduced. This is the same pattern we’ve seen the last 4 sessions since Republicans won the governorship and legislative majorities in 2010, and I can’t see any likelihood it will be any different in the upcoming 2019-2020 session.

The full economic implications of legalization in Michigan and likely legalization in Illinois and possibly Minnesota are unlikely to be felt until after a legal distribution system is created and implemented in those states. While Michigan’s new law gives state regulators a year to do so, it is not impossible it might happen sooner and the state’s licensed medical cannabis dispensaries could be allowed to sell to adults as happened in Washington and Oregon. So while sometime in the future Wisconsinites will likely be visiting our neighbors to score legal pot, that is not going to happen soon.

Advocates are rightfully thrilled at the big referendum wins in Wisconsin and what they represent in terms of public opinion supporting cannabis legalization. But while the state has a new governor and attorney general who are both open to cannabis, there is still a legislature where the majority remains opposed with the leadership seeming unwilling to bend. Even if sufficient Republicans were to support legalization, bills need to have a public hearing in committee followed by a vote. So the GOP leadership simply assigns the bill to a committee chaired by a reliable opponent. And while anti-pot committee chairs like Rep. Joel Kleefisch and Sen. Leah Vukmir will not be back next year, there are no doubt others ready to take their place to continue the stonewalling.

While the GOP leadership has not specifically addressed potential legalization since Senate President Roger Roth pooh-poohed it in the Green Bay Press Gazette after the election, remarks by Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos seem to point to an obstructionist approach to dealing with Gov.-elect Evers.

Advocates still face a steep uphill climb to pass legalization of medical and adult use cannabis in Wisconsin. And given Republican control of the legislature, even any potential “compromise” legalization would likely be very restrictive and far from the wishes of Wisconsin voters who showed up in force Nov. 6 to make it clear to elected officials that state cannabis laws must change.