By Shereen Siewert

Gov. Tony Evers on Sunday announced a proposal to legalize recreational marijuana as part of his 2021-23 biennial budget, an effort to increase revenue, stimulate jobs and reduce the strain on the criminal justice system.

Wisconsin would become the 16th state to legalize marijuana for recreational uses and would join neighboring Illinois and Michigan in doing so. Minnesota, which legalized medical marijuana in 2014 and is considering full legalization. Evers, in a news release Sunday, said the move would provide access to marijuana for people suffering from chronic or debilitating pain and illness while at the same time raising more than $165 million annually.

The governor proposes setting aside $80 million of the revenue generated by marijuana to reinvest in communities across the state through a new Community Reinvestment Fund. Beginning in in 2023, the Community Reinvestment Fund would fund $30 million in equity grants through the Department of Health Services, the Department of Administration, and the Department of Children and Families, respectively; $5 million to fund grants to underserved communities through the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation; and provide more than $34 million to support sparsity aid, which goes to small, rural school districts. The remaining revenue would be deposited into the state’s general fund.

“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,” said Gov. Evers. “Frankly, red and blue states across the country have moved forward with legalization and there is no reason Wisconsin should be left behind when we know it’s supported by a majority of Wisconsinites.”

Medical experts and law enforcement agencies are largely opposed to legalization, but polls show strong support among Wisconsin residents. In 2019, a Marquette University Law Poll found that nearly 60 percent of Wisconsinites support the legalization of marijuana and 83 percent of Wisconsinites support the legalization of medical marijuana. The governor’s 19-21 biennial budget proposed legalizing medical marijuana, which was ultimately rejected by Republicans in the Legislature.

Proponents, however, say legalizing marijuana could ease the burden for police, paving the way for officers to focus on more serious crimes. Policing marijuana is also costly for taxpayers, according to a University of Wisconsin study, which estimated that one drug-related arrest costs an average of $439 to Wisconsin taxpayers, translating to about $6.5 million per year.

But some question whether the proposal will see resistance from the Tavern League of Wisconsin, representing a powerful lobbying force in the state.  According to Forbes, states that have introduced medical marijuana laws have seen a 15% drop in alcohol sales, saying, “Introducing (overall) legal marijuana where alcohol consumption is legal may very well result in a negative effect on alcohol sales.”

Under the governor’s proposal, marijuana would be taxed and regulated much like alcohol, and would be regulated by both the Department of Revenue and the Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection. The proposal would require the sale of marijuana for recreational use to be sold by a marijuana retailer holding a permit issued by the DOR. Individuals would need to be 21 years of age to purchase marijuana for recreational use. All sales of recreational marijuana to minors would be prohibited. The plan also provides a path for medical marijuana users to access the product without paying retail taxes.

There are certain limits placed on the sale and possession of marijuana under the proposal. Wisconsin residents could possess no more than two ounces of marijuana and six plants for personal use. Nonresidents can possess no more than 0.25 ounces of marijuana. Under the proposal, no marijuana processor or microbusiness that operates as a marijuana processor could make usable marijuana using marijuana grown outside of Wisconsin.