Medical Marijuana Bill Fails to Advance in the Wisconsin Legislature

Medical Marijuana Bill Fails to Advance in the Wisconsin Legislature

The proposed measure, deemed too restrictive and conservative by opponents, would’ve made Wisconsin the 39th state to enact a medicinal medical program.



One of the more intriguing aspects of the cannabis reform debate is the unexpected support and passion from unlikely allies, namely the historically anti-marijuana Republican party. Across the country, more and more state legislatures have awakened to the fact that, along with its health and wellness benefits, cannabis is big business, which translates into substantial tax revenue for state coffers.


As a result, in traditional GOP strongholds like South Carolina, it is the Republican party leading the charge for cannabis legalization reform. Last week, the Palmetto State’s Senate passed a bill that would establish a medical marijuana program in the state, with the author of that bill being a staunch Republican. In addition, one of the leading proponents for ending federal prohibition of cannabis in Congress is South Carolina’s own Rep. Nancy Mace (R), an emphatic and classically traditional Republican member of the House. 


One of the main reasons for the unexpected reversal in policy by many in the Republican Party is the profound economic impact the cannabis sector is having on the overall American Economy. According to Statista, the total combined revenue from medical and adult-use cannabis sales is expected to top $40 billion in 2024. 


That revenue translates into substantial tax income for states with some form of legalized cannabis sales. In 2022, California collected close to $1.2 billion in tax revenue alone, and that was during a mini-slump for the West Coast marijuana behemoth. However, even in smaller states like Illinois and Michigan, the money collected from the taxation of medical and recreational sales is significant. That same year, Illinois cannabis consumers generated $466 million in collected tax revenue, while Michiganders produced a tax revenue boom of $341 million. 


One of the few remaining states that does not have any legalized cannabis sales is Wisconsin. Wedged between legal havens like Michigan and Illinois, the Badger State has come to feel the financial pain of failing to keep up with its more progressive-minded neighbors. 


In an attempt to reverse that narrative and help generate more economic opportunities within the Badger State, Republican lawmakers are attempting to pass legislation establishing Wisconsin’s own medicinal cannabis program. However, according to multiple media outlets, the state legislature’s first attempt to enact medical marijuana reform has failed. 


The measure, which is “highly restrictive,” died not because of opposition to legalized cannabis but because it was deemed too conservative by the opposition, which was pushing for full adult-use legalization. 


The legislation being aggressively pushed by GOP lawmakers who control both chambers of the state legislature “would limit medical marijuana to severely ill people and allow for it to be dispensed at just five state-run locations” while also banning smokable cannabis.


“The proposal would limit the availability of marijuana to people diagnosed with certain diseases, including cancer, HIV or AIDS, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, severe muscle spasms, chronic pain or nausea, and those with a terminal illness and less than a year to live,” the Associated Press reported.


"The proposal would limit the availability of marijuana to people diagnosed with certain diseases, including cancer, HIV or AIDS, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, severe muscle spasms, chronic pain or nausea, and those with a terminal illness and less than a year to live."

- Associated Press


Despite calls for a public hearing by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos to build support for passage of the measure in the next session, the bill is effectively dead, with the legislative session coming to an end next week.


Democrats, including Gov. Tony Evers, have advocated for outright marijuana legalization. However, to get some positive legislative momentum for legalization, he did indicate he would support the Republican-backed medical marijuana proposal as a meaningful initial step toward broader marijuana reform in the state.


“I would think that getting it all done in one fell swoop would be more thoughtful as far as meeting the needs of Wisconsinites that have asked for it. But if that’s what we can accomplish right now, I’ll be supportive of that. Do I think we need to consider recreational marijuana? Of course. I’ve been for it, so are a majority of the people [of] Wisconsin, but if this is a step in the right direction, let’s make it happen,” Evers said.


"I would think that getting it all done in one fell swoop would be more thoughtful as far as meeting the needs of Wisconsinites that have asked for it. But if that’s what we can accomplish right now, I’ll be supportive of that. Do I think we need to consider recreational marijuana? Of course. I’ve been for it, so are a majority of the people [of] Wisconsin, but if this is a step in the right direction, let’s make it happen."

- Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers (D)


And, as mentioned earlier, Evers, his fellow Democrats, and the Republican leadership are all feeling the financial pinch of Wisconsinites traveling to Illinois and Michigan to purchase cannabis. An economic analysis released last year found that Illinois, which began recreational marijuana sales in 2020, collects tens of millions of dollars a year from Wisconsin citizens who travel across the border for legal cannabis purchases. 


“It should upset every Wisconsinite that our hard-earned tax dollars are going across the border to Illinois. This is revenue that could be going toward Wisconsin’s public schools, transportation infrastructure, and public safety.” Melissa Agard, the Democratic leader in the Wisconsin state senate at the time, said in a statement following the release of the analysis.


"It should upset every Wisconsinite that our hard-earned tax dollars are going across the border to Illinois. This is revenue that could be going toward Wisconsin’s public schools, transportation infrastructure, and public safety."

- Former Wisconsin Democratic House Leader Melissa Agard


She also took the opportunity to attack her Republican colleagues across the aisle for their entrenched prohibitionist stance. “Republicans’ continued refusal to legalize marijuana is fiscally irresponsible…Wisconsin is losing out on significant tax dollars that could be used to make our communities stronger, safer, and healthier,” she said.


Her words, and, perhaps, more importantly, those tax revenue figures for Illinois and Michigan are most likely the motivation behind the failed medical cannabis bill’s introduction by the still-reticent and wary GOP leadership. The disconnect between State Assembly leadership and the prevailing sentiments of the people, who overwhelmingly support some form of legalization, is placing profound economic and political pressure on legislators who seem to be increasingly tone-deaf regarding the inevitable. 


With Minnesota now among the ranks of states with both medical and recreational cannabis markets, Wisconsin is literally surrounded. If the leaders in Madison do not profoundly change their political position on legalized cannabis, they will continue to fall farther and farther behind their more enlightened, progressive, and economically potent midwestern neighbors.