By Shereen Siewert
WAUSAU — As the Marathon County board mulls asking residents to weigh in on the medical marijuana issue in Wisconsin, voters around the state will have the chance to make their voices heard in November.
At least 13 counties including Marathon are debating adding a non-binding referendum to the November ballot, with advisory questions on legalization officially qualifying in Milwaukee and Rock Counties. In general, the language being considered asks voters if the Wisconsin Legislature should legalize and regulate marijuana; Marathon County’s conversation surrounds medicinal use only.
On Tuesday, officials in Eau Claire, La Crosse, Langlade and Sauk counties held hearings on marijuana advisory questions. This week in Langlade County, members of the executive committee unanimously approved their proposed referendum and will ask the full board to vote on the issue next week. Kenosha, Walworth and Winnebego County representatives are expected to hold hearings about the issue later this month, and officials in Dane and St. Croix counties are also weighing marijuana advisory questions.
The debate comes just as the latest in a string of studies to demonstrate a link between medical marijuana legalization and lower opioid use rates has just been released.
The study released in June found that statewide medical cannabis legalization implemented between 1993 and 2014 in the U.S. was associated with a nearly 30 percent reduction in Schedule III opioids received by Medicaid enrollees. The research was performed by the University of California San Diego and Weill Cornell Medical College, and was published in the journal Addiction.
Calculating the cost of opioid pain drugs that patients would have otherwise purchased, the study estimated that medical cannabis legalization in states saves the federal government an estimated $7.46 million per year in Medicaid spending. An additional $6.54 million is estimated in annual savings for states.
“[I]f all the states had legalized medical cannabis by 2014, Medicaid annual spending on opioid prescriptions would be reduced by 17.8 million dollars,” the study projected.
Another study published in March from scientists at the University of Kentucky and Emory University noted that “marijuana is one of the potential nonopioid alternatives that can relieve pain at a relatively lower risk of addiction and virtually no risk of overdose.” It found that laws allowing medical cannabis or recreational marijuana “have the potential to lower opioid prescribing for Medicaid enrollees, a high-risk population for chronic pain, opioid use disorder, and opioid overdose.”
“Marijuana liberalization may serve as a component of a comprehensive package to tackle the opioid epidemic,” the researchers conclude.
Critics say marijuana legalization can lead to a host of unintended consequences that could negatively impact citizens. In his July 3 opinion piece, County Board Member Shawn Black called marijuana a “Trojan horse to destruction,” predicting that medical marijuana would lead to increased crime and and jail overcrowding.
Certainly in Colorado, where recreational use of marijuana has been legal since 2013, there has been a documented increase in crime, homelessness, rising medical expenses, lost productivity in the workplace, and increased “legal” growing for illegal shipment out of state. There is also an increased risk of overdose in children who eat “edibles,” candies or other foods made from marijuana. In Washington state, for example, which legalized recreational marijuana in 2012 for adults age 21 and over, calls received by the state’s poison center regarding marijuana infused products increased 36 percent from 2014 to 2016. Calls involving marijuana oil increased by 105 percent.
But the advisory referendum proposed by Marathon County does not involve recreational use of the drug. Here, the referendum proposed asks voters their opinion on legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes only. The drug would be tightly regulated and prescribed by a licensed Wisconsin physician for a limited number of conditions. Jim Maas, a Vietnam veteran, says legalizing marijuana for medical treatment of PTSD could be life-changing.
“Instead of “fighting” opioids, how about offering hurting veterans a dose of medical cannabis, like other states around us are doing?” Maas wrote, in a June 27 opinion piece.
Medical marijuana is legal in 30 states including in Minnesota, which passed the legislation in 2014. Three years later, Minnesota officials published a study outlining the impact medical marijuana has had on the state since the legislation was enacted. In the report, the Minnesota Department of Health stated that there have been no reports of arrests of people driving while impaired by medical marijuana, which remains illegal under state law. As of February 2017, the date the report was published, there was one open criminal case in which medical marijuana had been diverted to another state, according to the MDH.
Further, there have been “no substance abuse impacts related to the medical cannabis program reported to the Office of Medical Cannabis,” the MDH report states.
Medical marijuana is also legal in Michigan, where lawmakers in 2008 approved cannabis for post-traumatic stress disorder, cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, Crohn’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and severe and chronic pain. This month, the state added 11 new conditions: arthritis, autism, chronic pain, colitis, inflammatory bowel disease, obsessive compulsive disorder, Parkinson’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, spinal cord injury, Tourette’s syndrome and ulcerative colitis.
Lawmakers aren’t obliged to act based on their constituents’ votes, but the questions are designed to serve as guides for representatives.
In Marathon County, an educational meeting including time for public comments is set for 7 p.m. on Thursday, July 19 at the Marathon County Courthouse. The full board is expected to review the matter on July 24.