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Wisconsin Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard says the most dangerous thing about marijuana in Wisconsin is its continued prohibition in the state.
She came to this conclusion by listening to her constituents and fellow Wisconsinites, and has collected stories of lives changed and ruined by Wisconsin’s outdated marijuana prohibition, especially when surrounded by more forward-thinking states – Michigan, Illinois and Minnesota – that have ended the phony, race-based prohibition of a beneficial plant.
“Wisconsin is literally an island of prohibition,” Agard said in a recent telephone call. “I first introduced legislation to legalize cannabis for responsible adult usage in Wisconsin more than a decade ago. It was my first term in the legislature, I was newly elected to the Assembly and I had not campaigned on cannabis policy.”
At that time, there were only two states (Colorado and Washington) that had legalized marijuana for responsible adult usage. Since then, 23 states, three U.S. territories and Washington, D.C., have dropped the outdated prohibition against marijuana.
Blockheaded Republicans have had a long stranglehold on Wisconsin politics, so Agard’s legislation hasn’t gone far. But that has not stopped her from continuing to fight to end the prohibition. It’s the reason she has been touring the state in what she calls the Grass Routes tour, holding community hearings to hear even more stories of how Wisconsin’s draconian marijuana laws have harmed people.
“Despite the fact that it’s wildly popular, even amongst Republican voters in Wisconsin, we haven’t been able to receive a public hearing on this,” Agard said. “So I then decided that I was going to take myself out around the state of Wisconsin and travel to where the people are. If my friends in the majority party weren’t willing to schedule a public hearing and hold town halls and listening sessions and meet with people across Wisconsin. It provides a safe place for people, regardless of their party affiliation, so that we could chat about cannabis policy.”
The situation reminds Agard of the oleo prohibition from an earlier time. In 1967, Wisconsin became the last state to drop its prohibition against yellow margarine, which had caused folks to drive to neighboring states to purchase the cheaper-than-butter margarine.
“It’s clear that we would be a safer state without prohibition,” Agard said. “It didn’t work with alcohol. It didn’t work with margarine. People used to go to their friends and neighbors across the street and in their neighborhoods and say ‘I’m driving over the border to purchase some oleo margarine. Who wants it?’ And that’s very similar to the conversations that people are having with their friends and neighbors and family members now, when they go to Minnesota or Michigan and Illinois.”
Two sessions ago she introduced a bill to end Wisconsin’s marijuana prohibition from an Illinois dispensary parking lot.
“And it was very interesting, you know, as we were introducing the bill to see the people who are going into the dispensary,” she said. “There were grandmas and grandpas. There were moms in yoga pants. There were business people. There were white people, brown people, young people. It was not defined by any sort of demographic.”
She also reached out to Michigan and Illinois taxing departments to find out if they tracked out-of-state sales and where they were coming from.
“Michigan does not,” she said, “but Illinois, we received information back that more than $3 million of the sales tax revenue collected was from Wisconsin purchases.”
There are, of course, some naysayers who ask Agard why she wants to introduce an illicit substance to the state, a question that causes her to laugh.
“There’s a wildly successful illicit industry in Wisconsin,” she said. “I don’t like calling it a black market. I think that is a bit of a racist term, especially when we’re talking about the racial disparities here, but it’s a very successful illicit industry in Wisconsin….Clearly, we are not introducing something new. What I am trying to do with this bill is provide regulations and safety mechanisms for people in Wisconsin, as well as to harvest those dollars, keep them here and expand industry, expand economic opportunity for folks, and you know, hopefully save some money in addition in the criminal justice system, whether it be for our local governments, or for our state government. Cannabis-related offenses in Wisconsin can lead to felony charges, which are expensive. When right across the border. It’s completely legal to do those same things.”
Agard added that her bill will make sure nonviolent misdemeanor offenses would automatically be expunged and there would be a path forward for those with felony charges.
“We know that people should not be defined by bad moments or unjust laws,” Agard said.
Longtime Madison medical marijuana activist Gary Storck said he is thrilled that Sen. Agard has embraced the issue, saying she “has become the leading voice for cannabis legalization in the state.”
“After decades of working to find lawmakers who were supportive, it’s nice to know supporters are well represented under the dome,” Storck said. “Still, it may take a state Supreme Court ruling striking down the gerrymandered maps, because the current crew of Republicans is so radical they can’t grasp the benefits our neighboring states and other states that have legalized are seeing.”
On the first leg of the Grass Routes tour, which brought her to Superior on Sept. 27, Agard said she heard more of the same stories she has heard since beginning this Sisyphean journey.
“I’ve visited close to two dozen towns and villages and cities and dozens of shops and lots of libraries. And we’re going to continue doing this into December, weather permitting,” she said. “Hundreds of people have come together on these stops and only a very small handful of people have come in who are skeptical. I haven’t had any prohibitionists,” she said. “More people are like, ‘Have you thought about this?’ ‘What would you do about this?’ ‘Is this included in the bill?’ So really thoughtful conversations, really helpful. And, you know, clearly, Wisconsin is ready for this. And I think that the message that’s been delivered to me is really the devil’s in the details with all policymaking, and people are paying attention. We have to get it done right. We can’t just throw spaghetti at the wall and allow the majority party or even the minority party, anyone to just say, OK, we’re checking this box off by doing this. I tend to think that the work I’ve been putting into this for more than a decade meeting people in Wisconsin, that is the best way to do policymaking. That’s the best way to write a bill.”
But with a few powerful men in the Capitol making decisions for the rest of the state, is there a path to an end of marijuana prohibition in Wisconsin?
“I’m proud of the work that I have been doing,” Agard said. “Clearly, the genie’s out of the bottle, you can’t shove them back in. It’s not a matter of if this is going to happen in Wisconsin, it’s a matter of when and whether you know what it looks like? With more than 70 percent of the people of Wisconsin behind it, we want to honor people’s liberties, and really make sure our communities are safer. And you know, I think the icing on the cake is the revenue….Even amongst my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, I do think that if it was allowed to flow, we would be able to compromise and get it across the finish line. The governor would sign it because he’s included the bill in his budget twice.
“I am buoyed by the fact that I believe very strongly that the people of this great state are the bosses of the elected officials. I don’t want to run the system, I don’t want to create a narrative that is counter to the morals and the beliefs of the people that call Wisconsin home. And I do think that we are going to get to a point in Wisconsin where the moral issues, the values and the priorities of ordinary Wisconsin, it will again be represented and in lawmaking. Not easy work. But I think it is important work. And it’s important that people know that there are folks in government who hear them and are working in their best interest. It oftentimes feels like a thankless job. But when I actually can have these conversations, that reminds me about the value of the work that I’m doing.”
Sen. Agard continues the Grass Routes tour with stops in Kenosha (Nov. 1), Stevens Point (Nov. 30) and Rhinelander (Dec. 7).
“We do have a petition that we’re circulating through our office that people can sign on to, encouraging the majority party to simply hold a public hearing on this bill. So I think that I always like to provide people with a call to action,” she said. “People often say, 'I agree with that. Well, what can I do? I am just one person.' I would say that would probably be one of the most direct calls to action that people can do right now.”
You can sign the petition on Sen. Agard's website: https://legis.wisconsin.gov/senate/16/agard/constituent-services/legalize-opportunity.