By Shereen Siewert

WAUSAU — County leaders are considering adding an advisory referendum to the November ballot as a way to gauge support for legalizing medical marijuana in Wisconsin.

On Monday, members of the health and human services committee approved adding the language to the ballot by a vote of 4-1. The full board will make the final decision next month after hearing from constituents. If the measure passes, the referendum will read: “Should the state of Wisconsin allow individuals with debilitating medical conditions to use and safely access marijuana for medical purposes, if those individuals have a written recommendation from a licensed Wisconsin physician?”

Jim Maas, a Vietnam veteran and chair of the Marathon County Libertarian Party, first brought the issue to the committee last month. An advisory referendum would help legislators have a clear understanding of how state residents feel about the issue, he said.

“Veterans organizations support it,” Maas said. “The American Legion has broad support from a wide range of ages, people who support it. And if the Wisconsin Attorney General wants to fight opioid abuse, this is another alternative for pain.”

Medical marijuana is legal in 29 states including Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan, but so far lawmakers have resisted legalization in Wisconsin.

Veterans groups in particular are calling for change on both the state and federal level. The American Legion, which represents more than 2.4 million military veterans, released a poll last year finding that 81 percent of veterans said they “want to have cannabis as a federally-legal treatment.”

The group has also adopted resolutions at its two most recent annual conferences calling on the federal government to reschedule marijuana and to let U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs doctors recommend medical cannabis to their patients in states where the law allows.

The medical marijuana debate is a hot topic locally, according to Dist. 1 Rep. Katie Rosenberg.

It’s been a day and I’ve already heard from more people about a potential medical marijuana referendum than on the vehicle registration fee in two years,” Rosenberg said.

Proponents argue that medical marijuana can be a safe and effective treatment for the symptoms of cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, pain, glaucoma, epilepsy and other conditions. They cite dozens of peer-reviewed studies, prominent medical organizations, major government reports and the use of marijuana as medicine throughout world history.

But opponents of medical marijuana argue that it the drug too dangerous to use, lacks FDA approval and that various legal drugs make marijuana use unnecessary. They say marijuana is addictive, leads to harder drug use, interferes with fertility, impairs driving ability, and injures the lungs, immune system and brain. Some critics say that medical marijuana is a front for drug legalization and recreational use.

Last year, the state Legislature lifted a 60-year ban on growing industrial hemp and did so nearly a century after Wisconsin had produced more industrial hemp than any other state in the nation. Industrial hemp has low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive property in marijuana, a related cannabis sativa plant. State lawmakers also loosened restrictions on possession of a medicinal extract of hemp known as cannabidiol, or CBD oil, which reportedly helps reduce pain, anxiety, nausea and seizures.

Although a few individual Republicans have voiced interest in going further than that, such as allowing the manufacturing of CBD oil from the now legal hemp, legislative bills by Democrats have routinely stalled in committee.

The full board will take up the measure next month.