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Wisconsin should speed up legalization of marijuana

Five years ago state Rep. Melissa Sargent rejected the backward thinking of those who seek to maintain a failed “drug war” and announced: “The facts clearly show that legalization is right for Wisconsin and that the most dangerous thing about marijuana is that it’s illegal.”

Since then, the Madison Democrat has led the legislative fight to legalize marijuana for recreational and medical use. She has done so for all the right reasons.

“Adults choosing to use marijuana in the safety of their own home is a matter of personal liberty and freedom,” said Sargent, who argued that legalization would save time and money for law enforcement. She noted that the responsible regulation and taxation of marijuana sales would raise needed revenues for the state. And, she said, legalization would help combat the stark racial disparities that exist when it comes to marijuana-related arrests in Madison and throughout Wisconsin.

“With limited resources, and an overextended prison system, it is not sustainable to continue imprisoning people for these offenses,” explained the state representative. “It is a travesty that we are putting millions of taxpayer dollars into victimless crimes when we should be doing the exact opposite: creating revenue and letting our police officers focus on keeping peace in our neighborhoods.”

The Capital Times, which for decades has supported efforts to decriminalize and legalize marijuana use by adults (as part of our broader opposition to the drug war), has editorialized before in support of Sargent’s initiative. But progress has been frustratingly slow. Former Gov. Scott Walker, a conservative who failed to keep up with evolving thinking regarding criminal justice, stood in the way of progress. So did Walker’s Republican allies, who controlled the Legislature.

Now that Walker is gone, Gov. Tony Evers is sending at least some of the right signals. But the key word at this point is “some.”

Evers said: “At the end of the day, do I favor legalization? Yes.” He added that, if a bill fully legalizing recreational marijuana were to secure the support of the Legislature, “I personally would sign that bill.”

So the governor is on the right side of the issue. Yet for now, Evers said, his budget is likely to include just “a first step around medical marijuana.” The newly elected Attorney General, Josh Kaul, said that he, too, is on board for medical marijuana.

That’s good. But that’s not enough.

It is absurd that Wisconsin is stumbling around in the “first-step” stage on these issues, when states throughout the country have recognized that legalization is the right response if we are serious about economic and social and racial justice.

We recognize that Evers still must deal with a recalcitrant Legislature, where Republican dead-enders like Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald continue to call most of the shots. Vos has signaled some openness to removing barriers to medical marijuana but, for the most part, these “leaders” are phoning in their responses from the 1950s.

They are out of touch not just with Wisconsin but, increasingly, with their own party.

For some years now, there has been a restlessness regarding marijuana within the Republican Party and the conservative movements that Vos and Fitzgerald claim to represent. Although support for the legalization of marijuana in Wisconsin tops 60 percent, according to recent Marquette Law School polling, Republican support for legalization is now over 40 percent and moving steadily in the direction of 50 percent. A number of Republicans at the federal level have stepped up as advocates for medical marijuana and for allowing states to set their own course when it comes to legalization. In a several states, Republican legislators have stepped up as sponsors of legalization. David Flaherty, a former Republican National Committee member from Colorado (which recently legalized marijuana), has now said: “It’s politically advantageous right now to be a Republican supporting marijuana.”

We agree. And we think that Evers should push harder on this issue in hopes of building a bipartisan movement for sensible legalization of marijuana sales, purchases and use by adults. At the very least, the governor should work to hold a statewide advisory referendum to determine whether Wisconsinites favor not just medical marijuana but also full legalization. Evers said during the 2018 campaign that he wants such a referendum — as a means of prodding legislators to consider the issue — and we think the governor should make it a priority to get a proposal on the ballot as quickly as possible

We have no doubt that a referendum would win strong support from voters. How strong? Last fall voters were offered an opportunity to weigh in on marijuana legalization and decriminalization, as well as medical marijuana, in referendums that appeared on the ballots in 16 Wisconsin counties and two cities. Every one of the county and city advisory referendums passed. Seventy percent of the Milwaukee County voters who went to the polls that day backed a proposal to end the state’s prohibition on marijuana and signaled that they favor regulating its distribution and taxing sales to provide revenue for the state. In Dane County, 76 percent of the voters who cast ballots favored legalizing marijuana for adults.

Sargent plans to keep finding sponsors for her legalization legislation. We hope that Evers will help her to do so because Sargent was right when she said that, on this issue, “the public is ahead of the Legislature.”

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