WALTERS: Capitol setback for medical marijuana advocates

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HOW Democratic Gov. Tony Evers answered a question on legal marijuana use may have given Republican legislators afraid of "pot on every corner" reasons to take no action on legalizing medical marijuana.

At a recent Wisconsin Technology Council event days after he took office, Evers made three newsworthy statements when asked about medical and recreational marijuana.

FIRST, Evers said the 2019-21 state budget he gives lawmakers on Feb. 28 will include the "first steps" toward legalizing medical marijuana. He gave no specifics about how it would be regulated, however.

Second, he said he wants a discussion - and maybe a "statewide referendum" - on whether to legalize recreational marijuana. It would be the first statewide advisory referendum since 2006, when voters overwhelmingly recommended restoring the death penalty.

Third, he said he supports legalizing recreational marijuana: "I personally would sign [that bill into law]. I just want to make sure we do it correctly."

But Republican Assembly leaders said, with his offhand comments endorsing medical and recreational marijuana, the new governor may have killed any chance that medical marijuana will soon be legalized.

ASSEMBLY Speaker Robin Vos said he personally supports the carefully regulated use of medical marijuana. He made it clear that is his personal position, since the 63 Assembly Republicans who control half of the Legislature have not discussed the issue.

But, Vos said, "I do not want it to be a half-handed effort like in other states, where you can grow it yourself, you can get a phony doctor's excuse.

"I don't want to have medical marijuana - which I support - somehow lead us down the slippery slope to where there's pot on every corner."

Vos said he does not support legalizing recreational marijuana, so it was "incredibly counter-productive" for Evers to endorse both changes.

"He started out saying he's open to legalizing medical marijuana and literally, in the same day, slid down the slope saying he would support full legalization - exactly what many [Assembly Republicans] are afraid of," Vos told reporters, adding:

"I hope he has not poisoned the conversation through his inexperience. But, perhaps, he has."

ASSEMBLY Majority Leader Jim Steineke said the governor's comments "honestly played into the fears of a lot of us that support medical marijuana."

Medical marijuana "should be for people with debilitating disease, or chronic pain - things like that," Steineke added.

Evers backing both medical and recreational use of marijuana "is a problem for a lot" of Assembly Republicans, Steineke said. "I'm not sure how we regain the trust that this is the first - and only step - when it comes to medicinal marijuana."

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald told reporters he does not expect the Republican-controlled Senate to debate legalizing marijuana use. "I still don't believe the support is there . to move in that direction."

BUT the Democrat who will again be chief Assembly sponsor of a bill legalizing marijuana use, Rep. Melissa Sargent, of Madison, praised Evers for being the first governor to join the cause.

"It is in the best interest of our state to look toward the future and recognize the vast medicinal, economic and social justice opportunities marijuana legalization would bring to our state," she said in a statement announcing her new bill to make that change.

Sargent said 16 local governments held advisory referendums on Nov. 6 that asked voters whether medical or recreational marijuana should be legalized and all referendums passed.

That proved that "the people are ahead of the politicians on this topic, and agree that the most dangerous thing about marijuana in Wisconsin is that it is illegal," Sargent added.

MEANWHILE, the Marquette University Law School poll released last week found 59% of those who responded favored legalizing marijuana; 35% opposed. The Jan. 16-20 poll of 800 respondents had a margin of error of +/-3.9%.

Pollster Charles Franklin said that was significant change since the poll asked the same question in September of 2014, when only 46% backed legalizing marijuana and 51% opposed.

Wisconsin is part of a national "real change over the last 10 years" in views on legal marijuana, Franklin said. Ten states - including Michigan - and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana, while other states have legalized medical marijuana.

"Public opinion has actually moved quite substantially," Franklin said.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at

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