Wisconsin and South Dakota are preparing 2020 legalization measures

Published on September 23, 2019 · Last updated July 28, 2020
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Wisconsin and South Dakota are among the few handful of states that still don’t allow the medical use of cannabis—but legislators and activists are ramping up their efforts to change that.

Activists and legislators are working hard now to pass medical legalization in 2020.

On Friday, a group of lawmakers in Madison launched a push to legalize medical marijuana in Wisconsin, introducing a bill that would allow patients to use the drug if they register with the state. The bill would also create a licensing system for growers.

Meanwhile, in South Dakota, activists with New Approach South Dakota are working hard to collect 30,000 signatures by Oct. 31, in order to get a medical legalization initiative on the Nov. 2020 statewide ballot. The state requires a minimum of 17,000 verified signatures, and advocates know that a fair number of petition signers on any measure fail to get verified, so they’re aiming at a goal of 30,000.

Thirty-three states, including nearby Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Illinois have legalized cannabis for medical purposes. Eleven states, including Illinois, have legalized it for all adults.

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Bipartisan Bill in Wisconsin

The Wisconsin bill’s authors, Sens. Jon Erpenbach and Patrick Testin and Rep. Chris Taylor, said in a joint statement that the time has come to lift the state’s restrictions. Erpenbach and Taylor are Democrats. Testin is a Republican.

“Doctors and patients, not government, should decide if cannabis is the right treatment,” said Testin, who co-sponsored a bill legalizing industrial hemp farming last legislative session. Then-Gov. Scott Walker signed that proposal into law in 2017.

Democrats have tried to get some form of cannabis legalization passed in every legislative session for the past decade. Despite Testin’s support, the latest bill faces an uncertain future in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Republican Leader Against It

Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has said he’s been open to legalizing medical marijuana for years and wants to work on the issue this fall.

A recent poll found 83% of Wisconsin residents support medical legalization. But the state senate leader vows to block it.

But Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has said he doesn’t support it. He’s running for Congress next year in a traditionally conservative southeastern Wisconsin district and signaling support for cannabis could motivate potential primary challengers.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers proposed legalizing medical marijuana in the state budget, but Republicans removed the provisions from the final spending plan.

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Fitzgerald said in a statement Friday that the new bill is all but dead. “Everyone knows that medical marijuana leads to legalized marijuana,” he said. “I don’t support this plan and I think that it’s going to be a tough sell to a majority of our caucus.”

Qualifying Conditions

Under the Wisconsin bill, patients looking to use cannabis for medical purposes would have to join a new state Department of Health Services registry. To qualify for the registry, a person would have to be suffering from one of a wide range of ailments, including cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, severe pain, and chronic disease. A doctor would have to diagnose the ailment and explain the potential risks and benefits of medical cannabis to the registrant before he or she could join the list.

Applicants would have to pay a $250 registration fee and an annual $250 fee. The registry would be sealed to the public. People convicted of a violent felony wouldn’t be allowed to join it.

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The bill also would set up a licensing system for medical cannabis growers through the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. A grower would be defined as someone who grows more than a dozen cannabis plants. Applicants would have to pay a $250 initial fee and a $5,000 annual fee. Licensees would be prohibited from growing cannabis for personal or family use.

Wisconsin Gov. Supports It

Wisconsin Gov. Evers tweeted Friday that he supports the bill, pointing to a Marquette University Law School poll from April that found that 83% of respondents supported legalizing medical marijuana.

“It’s time for Wisconsin to do the right thing and allow doctors to prescribe medication that’s best (for) their patient and their families,” Evers wrote.

Two South Dakota Voter Initiatives

Meanwhile, in South Dakota, supporters of legalizing various forms of cannabis have been thwarted at nearly every turn, including an effort to become the 48th state to approve industrial hemp. But backers are doubling down on the 2020 election.

Volunteers are gathering signatures for two initiated ballot measures. One asks voters to approve medical cannabis, and the other seeks to legalize it for all adults 21 and older. Supporters tried the same approach to get on the 2018 ballot but failed to garner enough signatures.

Melissa Mentele, head of New Approach South Dakota, a volunteer group sponsoring the medical measure, said attitudes have changed about benefits for patients. She said organizers this time around have financial support from Marijuana Policy Project, one of two national nonprofits working on the measure. The other is New Approach PAC.

“Historically our organization has not done large amounts of fundraising,” Mentele said. “We’ve always been very small and done a lot of grassroots work.”

South Dakota Gov. Against Legalization

Republican Gov. Kristi Noem supports South Dakota’s strict cannabis laws and has said that legalizing industrial hemp is legalizing marijuana by default. Hemp is related to cannabis but does not contain enough THC to make someone high.

Brendan Johnson, a Democrat and former federal prosecutor representing South Dakotans For Better Marijuana Laws, the sponsor of the adult-use initiative, said his group does not believe it’s a partisan issue.

“I don’t want to have a political fight with the governor,” Johnson said. “President Trump said it is an issue for states to decide and that is what we want South Dakotans to do.”

Polling Indicates Both Could Pass

Marijuana Policy Project deputy director Matthew Schweich says internal polling shows that both measures have enough support to pass. If successful with the petition drives this year, Schweich said, it would be the first occasion that any state would have both medical and adult-use cannabis questions on the ballot at the same time.

'Gov. Noem believes that the experiments many states are taking with legalized marijuana will end badly.'

Kristin Wileman, Noem’s press secretary, told the Associated Press in a statement that the governor doesn’t take public positions on specific ballot initiatives, but cites Center for Disease Control statistics showing that cannabis use directly affects brain health and impacts memory, decision-making abilities, and reaction time.

“Gov. Noem believes that the experiments many states are taking with legalized marijuana will end badly,” Wileman said. “It’s her goal to make South Dakota an example to the nation of a state that’s tough on drugs.”

Laundry list of benefits

Supporters counter that legalizing cannabis for all adults will save taxpayers from wasting money on sending people to prison, allow cannabis to be regulated and taxed to add revenue to state coffers, and reduce opioid deaths, among other things.

The medical cannabis initiative would allow people suffering from a debilitating medical condition to obtain marijuana from a licensed dispensary and possess up to 3 ounces of cannabis and three plants. A similar measure passed overwhelmingly three years ago in neighboring North Dakota.

Patients moving to Colorado

Among those pushing for medical cannabis is George Hendrickson. He points to son Eliyah Hendrickson, a 7-year-old with floppy hair whom his father calls “a total heartbreaker.” The first five years of Eliyah’s life included myriad visits to doctors who tried to figure out why he had trouble breathing, why his arms and legs would spasm uncontrollably, why he would have clusters of seizures and why, as his father put it, he was a “drooling, bumbling mess of a child” who would spend all day playing with a spinner toy. Eliyah was eventually diagnosed with Dravet syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy.

Running out of options, Hendrickson and his son packed up and moved from Sioux Falls to Colorado, where medical cannabis is legal. They found a life-changing treatment in two derivatives of the cannabis plant. A seminal moment was when Eliyah stopped spinning the toy and acknowledged for the first time that his dad was in the room.

“He brought his toy over and he wanted me to play with him,” Hendrickson said, fighting back tears.

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