While GOP members hint at medical marijuana support, details remain hazy

NOW: While GOP members hint at medical marijuana support, details remain hazy

MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- As Democrats renewed their push to fully legalize marijuana in Wisconsin Thursday, Republican lawmakers indicated they draw the line at medical use only.

State Rep. Robert Wittke (R-Racine) said in an interview Thursday Assembly Republicans are discussing a bill applying only to medical marijuana. Wittke's comments came hours after Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told the Associated Press a group of GOP lawmakers were hashing out such a plan.

"That's true," Wittke said of an Assembly GOP medical marijuana plan. "There's a number of Senate Republicans that are discussing it as well."

Wittke said he opposed any efforts to legalize marijuana for recreational adult use. He added he would consider supporting a medical marijuana bill, depending on what it contained.

"I've talked to a lot of veterans. I've talked to a lot of other groups that would like us to consider it for different things, that would treat them," Wittke said. "I'm more than glad to listen to that, find out what the framework is before we decide which way to go forward."

Wittke said he was not personally involved in those Assembly GOP talks. Vos' office declined an interview request Thursday and did not respond to follow-up questions seeking a statement. 

Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) also declined to comment Thursday. LeMahieu told CBS 58 in January there might be enough support in the Senate for medical marijuana, but added he had reservations about the idea until the FDA gives formal approval.

Also on Thursday, the legislature's most prominent supporter of legal marijuana announced a statewide tour where Democrats would host four town halls on the issue. The date was no coincidence: April 20 is a holiday for marijuana users.

Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard (D-Madison) said the "Grass Routes" tour would push for full legalization. She pointed to a recent report from the legislature's nonpartisan fiscal bureau, which estimated Wisconsin residents spent $36 million in taxes to Illinois last year when crossing the border to buy legal weed.

Recreational marijuana use is also legal in Michigan. Medical use is legal in Iowa and Minnesota. This spring, Minnesota Democrats are advancing a bill that would legalize recreational use too.

"While our neighboring states are, in fact, growing their future, Wisconsinites are being left behind," Agard said.

Wittke said economic incentives were not enough to outweigh his concerns. He questioned whether new tax revenue would justify the costs of regulating a legal recreational marijuana economy.

"If it's being collected, how is it being allocated, or what are the expenses that are being applied against it?" Wittke said. "If people wanna go to Illinois, they wanna go to Michigan, they wanna go across the Minnesota, that's great."

Wittke added he considered marijuana a backburner issue. He said his priorities this spring were tax and education bills. 

Agard maintained there was enough support among rank-and-file Republicans to pass a marijuana bill. She blamed Vos and LeMahieu for blocking such legislation from receiving a vote in the Assembly or Senate.

"Republican leadership is one of the big hurdles," she said. "It is not special interest groups on the outside."

A pair of GOP lawmakers held a public hearing last April on a medical marijuana bill. That bill's authors, Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R-Tomahawk) and Rep. Patrick Snyder (R-Schofield), declined interview requests Thursday.

Agard said she would've voted against that GOP bill because it was too strict. The bill would've banned anyone with prior drug convictions from running a legal medical marijuana business.

An August 2022 Marquette Law School Poll found 69% of respondents supported legalizing marijuana in Wisconsin. 

As for whether she would support any bill that would legalize marijuana for strictly medical purposes, Agard said it would depend on the bill's language.

"It's not a matter of if cannabis becomes legal in Wisconsin," Agard said. "It's a matter of when and what the details of that policy are."

The "Grass Routes" tour begins May 4 in Platteville. Its only stop in Southeast Wisconsin will be May 10 in Wauwatosa. 

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