Proponents of marijuana legalization in Wisconsin are looking to capitalize on the recent national successes in Colorado and Washington with the passage of a medical marijuana bill in the upcoming legislative session.
Marijuana lobbying organizations National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and Is My Medicine Legal Yet? (IMMLY) spent Wednesday at the State Capitol for their Wisconsin State Cannabis Lobby Day talking to legislators about legalizing medical marijuana in Wisconsin.
The Jacki Rickert Medical Marijuana Act is being sponsored by Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison). Taylor is taking over sponsorship of the bill from Mark Pocan, who is now a U.S. congressman.
"This is a bill that's about making sure people who are struggling from really debilitating illness can get help," says Taylor. "The country really has moved much faster on this issue than public policy makers. 77% of people in a 2011 poll support medical marijuana, so the public opinion is very supportive but the policies have been very slow."
With states like Illinois and New York considering medical marijuana laws and Colorado and Washington legalizing it outright, NORML wants legislators to see that now is the time to take action.
"Eighteen states already have laws like this," says Wisconsin NORML president Jason Glaspie. "We have a lot of money we could be saving instead of spending on criminalization."
Glaspie believes the recent legalizations in Colorado and Washington could help here in Wisconsin.
"It shows it's not the end of the world, and every state that legalizes or decriminalizes makes it an easier tipping point."
Ari Clarke traveled from Sheboygan to talk to her local representative about an issue that affects her life every day.
"I have PTSD," she says. "My late husband had multiple sclerosis and I think my husband would still be alive if he had access to medical marijuana."
Clarke suffered extensive injuries in a bus crash in 1994. She says that marijuana helps with the pain and other symptoms and hopes that the growing national support will push legislators to act.
"This state is supposedly forward, so I hope they see the success and revenue and savings in Colorado and Washington," Clarke says.
Dennis Brennan, who works with the Ben Masel Project, wants to show legislators that money is leaving the state as a direct result of not having legal medical marijuana. Brennan is organizing a group that wants to purchase medical marijuana licenses from Oregon. If a Wisconsin citizen possesses an Oregon license, he can use it in his defense if charged with criminal possession. For $380, each of the group members would get the license through a doctor, making it legal to purchase marijuana in Oregon. Brennan says that has worked as a defense for possession in Wisconsin.
"Since we don't have voter referendum we have to show legislators that people really want this," Brennan says. "Money is leaving the state, and if we can show that flow, it will give them a reason to vote for it."
Wisconsin has some of the harshest marijuana laws in the region. Michigan allows access to medical marijuana, Minnesota has decriminalized some degrees of possession and Illinois close to passing medical marijuana legislation. Illinois may be an interesting test case for Wisconsin as it currently has what some believe are the most restrictive laws in the nation.
Taylor says she is optimistic and eager to pass the Rickert Act in Wisconsin.
"I don't think there is a huge political risk," she says. "The state needs to consider people who have cancer, who have glaucoma. We know marijuana can help with these problems. So I'm very focused on getting this done for them now."
[Editor's note: This report has been corrected to reflect that Dennis Brennan is affiliated with the Ben Masel Project, not IMMLY.]