State Watch

Wisconsin governor backs legal marijuana

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) will propose legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes and regulating it to capture hundreds of millions in revenue as part of his annual state budget.

Evers, a first-term Democrat, said legal marijuana could generate more than $165 million annually, money he wants to use to fund community development especially in historically underserved areas.

“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 medical users and can open the door for countless opportunities for us to reinvest in our communities and create a more equitable state,” he said in a statement Sunday.

Evers’s proposal would give regulatory authority to the state Department of Revenue and the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. It would limit residents to 2 ounces of marijuana and six plants, and it would limit all marijuana sales to products grown inside the state’s borders.

Critics have hammered supporters of legal marijuana who promise legalization will bring substantial revenue, pledges that sound similar to those made when lotteries became legal in the 1980s and 1990s. The money Evers said would come from legal pot amounts to about one-third of one percent of the $41 billion Wisconsin will spend in its 2021 budget.

“They are chasing a unicorn,” Kevin Sabet, a former top official in the Office of National Drug Control Policy who runs Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which opposes legalization, said in an email. “Marijuana revenue sales numbers may sound impressive, but they represent a drop in the bucket for a state budget. They also do not pay for the enormous costs — from drugged driving crashes, school drop-outs, hospital costs, etc. — brought by commercializing marijuana.”

But some states say they’ve been able to collect tax revenue from legalized marijuana. According to the Urban Institute, Colorado and Washington, two of the earliest adopters of legalized marijuana, collected $267 million and $439 million in marijuana tax revenue, respectively, in 2018.

It is unlikely that the proposal will advance through the Republican-controlled legislature. Legislative leaders have clashed repeatedly with Evers, most recently over his emergency powers in the midst of a pandemic. 

But the fact that a governor in a swing state has proposed legalizing marijuana is a sign that what was once an outside-the-box policy untouchable for a politician is now mainstream.

The governors of Washington and Colorado opposed legalized marijuana when their constituents approved ballot measures in 2012. But in the past few years, legislators in Vermont and New Jersey have approved legalization. This year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has backed legalizing marijuana.

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia allow legal marijuana for recreational purposes. Most other states have allowed marijuana use for medicinal purposes. Just two states — Nebraska and Idaho — outlaw marijuana for any purpose.

Tags Andrew Cuomo legalization Marijuana Tony Evers
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