Illinois, our neighbor to the south, recently became the 14th U.S. state or territory to have legalized recreational cannabis sales for adults. On the first day of legal sales earlier this month, they raked in nearly $3.2 million in recreational marijuana revenue.
A month earlier, neighboring state Michigan became the first state in the Midwest to allow recreational marijuana sales and budget planners for that state are projecting recreational marijuana to become a nearly $1 billion-per-year industry beginning in the fiscal year 2021.
A total of 33 states have legalized cannabis for medical purposes, including neighboring state Minnesota.
Wisconsin residents in the north and the south of the state have a very short drive for an over-the-counter purchase, although marijuana is still illegal here in the Badger State. Sunnyside Medical & Recreational Cannabis Dispensary in Rockford, Ill., is a quick one-hour car ride from the Wisconsin State Capitol Building.
As marijuana reform — whether it’s decriminalizing, legalizing medical marijuana or legalizing full recreational — becomes the new normal across the United States, the people of the state of Wisconsin have been watching closely. Democratic state Rep. Melissa Sargent, an outspoken proponent of legalization, has been one of those people.
“We are talking about a billion-dollar industry knocking on the doors of Wisconsin,” Sargent tells Madison365 in an interview in her office at the Wisconsin State Capitol Building in Madison. “When you take into the account the tax revenue that would be coming in and the money that we would be saving through the criminal justice system and when you take into account the money spent in the state that would be positively impacting businesses – an economic stimulus – it goes into the billions.
“I do think that that number does shrink a little bit as we become an island of prohibition in Wisconsin,” she adds. “If we were one of the first states in the midwest and you had a manufacturer and producer and they wanted to build a facility here, it would happen in Wisconsin. But now, they’re more likely to build it on the border of Illinois or Michigan.”
But still, “we continue to hurt ourselves the longer we sit out,” Sargent says.
“When you look at the states who have legalized, the wages that people make in the industry tend to be family-sustaining; they are good family jobs,” she says. “We live in a state where we are losing two family farms a day. I have farmers who call my office every day who want to be part of this industry. They see it as a way to save their heritage and support their family.
“And I think it has been really exciting to see who has been leading on these conversations in other states. Women and people of color have been vital in changing this dynamic and moving this forward,” Sargent adds. “I’m really hopeful that Wisconsin continues on that tradition.”
Sargent, who is in the middle of her fourth term in the Wisconsin State Legislature, has been at the state Capitol for seven years now. At the beginning of his first term, marijuana was not even on her radar, she says. However, she has become the face of marijuana legalization in the past three legislative sessions, partly due to the heart-wrenching stories and experiences about the negative implications that the prohibition of marijuana has had on her constituents.
“When I was first running for office, this wasn’t one of the issues on my platform,” Sargent remembers. “The world of cannabis advocacy has really changed a lot in that timeframe. The stigma has started to melt away and people have really started to educate themselves and embrace the conversation.”
Shortly after she was first elected, Sargent was doing a lot of community engagement –listening sessions and door-knocking and office hours — when she found that concern about the legalization of cannabis was a common thread amongst her constituents. Oftentimes, she would even hear stories from non-constituents.
“People were coming to me and talking about how prohibition was hurting them or their families in so many different ways,” she says. “I remember a mom contacted me about her son who was caught speeding on the interstate and was stopped. There was a blunt in his ashtray and he lost his scholarship and his housing for college. And he wasn’t even using it; it was in his car.”
Marijuana arrests in black and white
The egregious racial disparities of arrests in the criminal justice system for pretty similar usage of marijuana was a topic that many of her constituents were very concerned about. Overall, it was destroying lives and families, but the racial inequities in arrests were bringing much greater devastation to black and brown communities.
“We have a couple of provisions of our current piece of legislation: there’s an expungement process for non-violent cannabis offenses … people who have been impacted by them. And there is a path for release for people that are currently sitting in jails and prisons for non-violent cannabis-related offenses, as well,” she says.
“Because we do know, depending on where you are in Wisconsin, that you are 4-7 times more likely to be arrested for simple possession,” Sargent continues. “That’s not distributing. That’s not using in public. That’s like walking down the street with a joint or baggie in your pocket or having a blunt in the ashtray of your car.
“It’s not OK,” she adds. “It’s really not OK.”
But it was also constituents with medical conditions that were contacting her about the health benefits of medical marijuana including relief from pain and a boost in immune function, emotional and mood regulation, vascular health and digestive function.
“Adults with glaucoma and people experiencing nausea and discomfort from chemotherapy or other medical conditions are finding real relief with the use of cannabis. Parents of kids with seizure disorders share with me how it is that cannabis was able to provide a higher quality of life for their kids,” she says.
“It became really apparent to me that the most dangerous thing about cannabis in Wisconsin is that it is illegal,” Sargent continues. “We have a real opportunity to address a lot of social ills. Prohibition hasn’t worked with other substances. So I started working on this bill as a freshman legislator.
“There had previously been legislation introduced in Wisconsin for medicinal, but the conversations I was having were not only in this medicinal realm,” she adds. “I thought it was really important that we were talking about adult rec[reational] as well as medicinal in order to address all of the things that people were sharing for me.”
Sargent says the bill has changed every time she has reintroduced it based upon what they’ve learned from other states. So far there have been four versions of the bill and it has been different every time.
“People come in and talk to myself and my staff about the bill and we try to address those concerns in the legislation,” Sargent says. “The legislation is alive and it continues to grow and transform and we grow and transform in this office every time we get to talk to someone. I very much feel that this bill has been crafted by the people of Wisconsin. I am just kind of the path.”
Society’s changing views on cannabis
Has the receptiveness changed during the seven years Sargent has been at the state Capitol?
“Inside the building, each time we put the bill out we receive more co-sponsorships from folks. At this point, it’s all Democrats who put their names on the line in supporting the legislation,” Sargent says. “I am always trying to build relationships with my colleagues and whenever I have a chance to talk with them, I tend to bring this up. I would say that there is more and more reception, but it’s not a priority of their caucus so they’re not putting their names on the lines as far as co-sponsors.”
Are they paying attention to what’s happening in the United States right now and, particularly, the states immediately around them?
“Yes, they are noticing that,” Sargent smiles. “They notice how their stock portfolios are being impacted by legalization. There are many of them that are looking at the criminal justice system. It’s not only about the revenue that we would bring in, but it’s also revenue that we can save. They are seeing that.”
“Adults with glaucoma and people experiencing nausea and discomfort from chemotherapy or other medical conditions are finding real relief with the use of cannabis. Parents of kids with seizure disorders share with me how it is that cannabis was able to provide a higher quality of life for their kids. It became really apparent to me that the most dangerous thing about cannabis in Wisconsin is that it is illegal. We have a real opportunity to address a lot of social ills. Prohibition hasn’t worked with other substances.”
-State Rep. Melissa Sargent
Outside the building, the positive reception for marijuana legalization keeps building momentum.
“I remember shortly after the first time I put the bill out, I was at a soccer game with my kids and there was a lot of head-nodding and ‘I like that stuff you’re working on.’ There were some code words but overall not really a lot of talk,” Sargent remembers. “Now, seven years later, people are openly talking about pot and cannabis and marijuana in front of their kids, in the grocery store, at their employment. It’s far more mainstream.
“Even when people share their concerns about it, we point out how we’ve been able to address that through the legislation,” she adds.
In November of 2018, there was a referendum question on the ballot throughout Wisconsin concerning the legalization of marijuana. It was supported by solid majorities in the 16 counties where they were placed on the ballot. “It became apparent from that, even in red communities, that prohibition wasn’t working in Wisconsin,” she says, “And people don’t support that.”
There are not a lot of issues that have the type of support from the overall population like marijuana does, Sargent says. The approval ratings continue to rise. A Marquette Law School Poll found that 61 percent of Wisconsinites believe marijuana should be legalized and regulated like alcohol. Only 39 percent opposed. Here in Dane County, more than 76 percent in favor of legalizing pot for recreational uses.
“I think that we’re at about two-thirds of the people of Wisconsin support full legalization. That’s a really solid number,” Sargent contends. “Medicinal is around 80 [percent]. Those are significant numbers.”
Sargent says that it’s an acknowledgment that a vast majority of the people in the state have used or are using it.
“But I have to be careful in this conversation that people don’t think that ‘Oh, all of us should be ingesting or smoking cannabis every day.’ But what we have seen through research of other states who have legalized it is that the people that are using it are going to keep using it,” she says. “You may have a few people that will be using it now that it’s legal and want to give it a try. But you don’t really see a big uptick in usage. Some tourism they are seeing. But probably because Wisconsin is later in the game, we’re not going to have a big tourism push from legalization.
“If you’re not hurting yourself and you’re not hurting other people, it’s far less dangerous than even peanut butter,” Sargent adds. “People are dying from ingesting from eating peanut butter. They are not dying from this.”
Over the last seven years, Sargent has put a ton of hours of work in and has shown quite a passion for marijuana legalization. That’s why people are often surprised when they find out that she’s never smoked marijuana.
“Growing up in Madison, it’s not like it hasn’t been available. Certainly, it’s been readily available. But I’m also not a cigarette smoker. Different people choose different paths,” she says.
“But I feel strongly that legalization is something that’s right for Wisconsin,” she adds.
Sargent has written about it in various publications. “Imagine being unable to obtain a job, to provide for your family or to live your life in normalcy because you have a non-violent, minor marijuana offense on your record,” Sargent wrote in an editorial for The Capital Times last year.
Marijuana legalization is a gateway to equity and opportunity, she wrote in another editorial. What did she mean by that?
“Oftentimes, people in the conversation use these words to get attention. We’ve spun it. It is a gateway to many things in Wisconsin: a gateway to prosperity, to opportunity,” she explains. “It’s a gateway to address racial disparities and equity issues.
“Again, it’s very much a three-dimensional conversation. It’s not like you can just say it’s just this one thing. It’s complicated as are our big policies,” she adds. “And we have to do it in a way that really honors our Wisconsin heritage, that honors the challenges that we’re facing and also addresses that concerns that people have – concerns that have been addressed in states that are farther along than us.”
Marijuana legalization concerns
The biggest concerns from Wisconsinites over the legalization of marijuana seem to be youth usage and impaired driving.
“Many of the concerns that people bring to us have been addressed in the bill that we have put forward,” she says. “Youth usage is something that we very much need to think about … brain development. We need to make sure that we are supporting our kids so that they grow up and be the best leaders and decision-makers that they can be because there’s going to be a day when you and I won’t be able to make decisions for ourselves anymore. We want them to be able to do that.
“So we have to make sure we address the education of our youth and that they understand brain development,” Sargent adds. “But that’s not cannabis usage; that’s just in general.”
Impaired driving is something that Sargent says she takes very seriously.
“Whether we’re talking about prescription usage, cannabis, alcohol, lack of sleep – whatever it is, impaired driving is a real problem,” she says. “Especially in Wisconsin, we have an epidemic when it comes to impaired driving with alcohol. And our alcohol laws in regard to driving are terrible. They are messy and they are not helping to address this issue.
“I don’t want anyone to be driving in any sense of impairment on the streets and we do take that very seriously in this legislation, as well,” Sargent continues. “Making sure that we are allowing for the education of our law enforcement officers. I think it’s really important that they are at the table as we move forward in this conversation because many of them have seen, straight out, things that have been happening in their communities. I think their voices need to be heard.
“We’ve looked pretty extensively about at what other states have done and what they haven’t done and where there have been challenges because of oversights,” she adds. “I feel pretty good about where we’re at.”
Marijuana legalization, Sargent says, won’t be the solution to all of our problems, but it’s a step in the right direction.
“This won’t address all of our disparities and it won’t save all of our family farms,” she says. “But, certainly, it will move us forward in those conversations that are very important to be having in Wisconsin as we lose so many farmers and as we are one of the worst states in the nation when it comes to racial disparities.
“I think that its vital to push forward policies that have positive impacts on communities who are marginalized in this state,” she adds.
So, what’s next?
“I think a lot of people think the be-all, end-all is what is happening in the Capitol building. But, really, I think in order for this conversation to continue moving forward, a lot of it has to do with what is going on out in the community and how people are talking about it. Removing stigma, talking about the opportunities and seeing what is happening in other states – that’s what’s really important,” Sargent says.
“It does get complicated here in the state Capitol building because now there are maybe a half-dozen or more pieces of legislation that have been introduced in regards to cannabis usage and legalization in one form or another,” she continues. “There’s a couple of different medicinal bills, there’s decriminalization legislation and there’s legislation in regards to employment testing. Oftentimes, people get confused because there are all of these policies. What is it that we really are fighting for?”
Sargent says she believes in full legalization, based upon what she’s seen in other states,
“The genie is out of the bottle. It’s only a matter of time before this is what happens,” she says. “So why do it once and then go back and do it again?”
“Another challenge that people would say to me, maybe a year or so ago, is that every state that has legalized has done it through referendum,” Sargent continues. “Wisconsin is not a referendum state, so people would ask, ‘Why do you keep trying?’ I believe that action through the Legislature can be more thoughtful and we can put more provisions and protections in the legislation – protections to address racial disparities, to make sure that we’re supporting Wisconsin businesses and Wisconsinites, in general.”
Illinois has just become the first state to legalize through legislative action.
“For people that have told me that it can’t be done, we don’t have to look much farther than our midwestern neighbor,” she says. “And, good gravy, if Illinois can get it done, we sure can.”