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Wisconsin Governor Vetoes Troubling Cannabis Penalties

Calling it “another step in the wrong direction,” Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers last week vetoed legislation that would have created new, stiff penalties for certain cannabis convictions. 

On Friday, the first-term Democrat vetoed a Republican supported bill that would have imposed harsher penalties on manufacturing or distributing cannabis.

“I am vetoing this bill in its entirety because I object to creating additional criminal offenses or penalties related to marijuana use,” Evers said in a statement. 

 Evers cited “state after state” that has enacted cannabis reform in recent years––from the end of pot prohibition to decriminalization––as well as a 2019 poll that found almost 60 percent of Wisconsinites in favor of legalizing cannabis for recreational use.

“It is widely accepted, and, indeed, research over the course of the last decade confirms, that marijuana criminalization has had a disproportionate impact on communities of color, especially in Wisconsin where have long-standing racial disparities in incarceration rates,” Evers said, pointing to a 2020 report issued by the American Civil Liberties Union that showed Wisconsin is one of the worst in the United States when it comes to racial disparities stemming from cannabis possession.

“State across our country—both Democrat and Republican-controlled alike—have and are taking meaningful steps to address increased incarceration rates and reduce racial disparities by investing in substance use treatment, community reentry programming, alternatives to incarceration, rehabilitation and other data-driven, evidence-based practices we know are essential solutions to reforming our justice system,” the governor continued regarding the issue. “The data and the science are clear on this issue, and I welcome the Legislature to start having meaningful conversations around justice reform in Wisconsin.”

Wisconsin legislators approved the bill in late August. For butane-extracted cannabis, it would have been possible to impose a $1,000 maximum fine and six months imprisonment. 

Republican lawmakers from Badger State started discussing the idea last year. One of the bill’s supporters, GOP Representative Jesse James said the legislation was about safety.

“Growing marijuana in your home is not going to cause an explosion,” James said in testimony supporting the bill. “It could cause a fire if you don’t properly take care of your lamps and everything like that. But this process in and of itself, it’s almost similar to a meth lab.”

Kristina, a Democratic Representative, was concerned that the bill might cause problems for Wisconsin. 

“My concern is, if and when we—and I will say when because I believe that we will eventually legalize marijuana, I know not everyone agrees with me, but I’m going to say when. …When we legalize marijuana, if we were to pass this bill… would this bill prohibit a closed-loop system that would be considered safe by professionals, using professional-grade equipment?” Shelton said last year.

In his veto statement last week, Evers claimed that the legislation “would simply be another step in the wrong direction.”

The veto was hardly a surprise, given Evers’ support for medical and recreational cannabis—both of which are illegal in Wisconsin. An year ago his office declared its intent to include a recreational cannabis plan in its budget from 2021-2023. 

“The majority of Wisconsinites agree: it’s time our state legalized marijuana,” Evers said on Twitter at the time. “In my #BadgerBounceback agenda, I’m calling for our state to join states across the nation in legalizing marijuana—a step that would generate more than $165M annually starting in 2023.”

Evers said in a statement last year that states “across the country have moved forward with legalization, and there’s no reason Wisconsin should be left behind.”