Wisconsin governor vetoes troubling cannabis penalties

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers called it “another step in the wrong direction” and last week vetoed legislation that would have introduced new, harsh penalties for certain cannabis convictions.

The first-term Democrat on Friday vetoed a Republican-backed bill that would have imposed harsher and separate penalties for the manufacture and distribution of cannabis or resin through butane extraction.

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

Evers cited state by state that have enacted cannabis reform in recent years — from the end of cannabis prohibition to decriminalization — as well as a 2019 poll that found nearly 60 percent of Wisconsinans support the legalization of recreational cannabis advocated.

“It is widely accepted, and indeed research over the past decade confirms, that marijuana criminalization has had a disproportionate impact on communities of color, particularly in Wisconsin where there has long been racial disparities in incarceration rates,” Evers said, and pointed to a 2020 report by the American Civil Liberties Union that showed Wisconsin to be one of the worst in the United States when it comes to racial disparities attributed to cannabis possession.

“States across our country — both Democrat- and Republican-controlled — have been and are taking meaningful steps to address elevated incarceration rates and reduce racial disparity by investing in drug use treatment, community re-entry programs, alternatives to… Incarceration, rehabilitation and other data-driven measures are investing, evidence-based practices that we know are essential solutions in reforming our justice system,” the governor continued regarding the issue. “The data and science are unequivocal on this issue, and I applaud the Legislature to engage in meaningful discussions on Wisconsin judicial reform.”

The law was passed by the Wisconsin legislature late last month. It would have faced a maximum fine of $1,000 or six months in prison for the butane-extracted weed.

Republican lawmakers in Badger State began discussing the proposal last year. One of the bill’s proponents, GOP Representative Jesse James, said the legislation is about safety.

“Growing marijuana in your home will not cause an explosion,” James said in a statement supporting the bill. “It could cause a fire if you don’t take proper care of your lamps and such. But this process in and of itself is almost like a meth lab.”

But others, like Democratic Rep. Kristina Shelton, wondered if the bill would pose problems in Wisconsin.

“My concern is if and when we will — and I will say when, because I believe eventually we will legalize marijuana, I know not everyone agrees, but I will say when.” … If we legalized marijuana and passed this law … would this law prohibit a closed-loop system that is considered safe by professionals and uses professional equipment?” Shelton said last year.

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

The veto was hardly surprising given Evers supports medical and recreational cannabis — both of which are illegal in Wisconsin. A year ago, his office announced its intention to include a recreational cannabis proposal in its 2021-2023 budget.

“The majority of Wisconsinites agree it’s about time our state legalized marijuana,” Evers said on Twitter at the time. “In my #BadgerBounceback agenda, I urge our state to join states across the country in legalizing marijuana — a move that would raise more than $165 million annually starting in 2023.”

Evers said in a statement last year that states “across the country have made progress with legalization and there is no reason to leave Wisconsin behind.”

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