MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Proponents of legalizing medical marijuana in Wisconsin made their case Wednesday at a public hearing on a Republican bill that’s getting its first airing under the GOP-controlled Legislature, the latest sign of movement toward loosening the state’s pot laws.
The bill only got a hearing after the Wisconsin state Legislature had adjourned for the year more than a month ago, meaning the soonest the idea could be acted on is next year.
Supporters of full legalization called the hearing a stunt. But Republican supporters said they were trying to start a conversation and introduce another bill next year based on feedback they receive.
Polls have consistently shown broad support for both medical and recreational marijuana legalization in Wisconsin. But Republicans, who have had full control of the Legislature since 2011, have repeatedly blocked any efforts to loosen the law.
The only other time a medical marijuana bill got a public hearing was in 2009, when Democrats had majority control of the Assembly. That bill did not pass.
Frustrated marijuana legalization proponents have watched all four of Wisconsin’s neighboring states loosen their laws, making Wisconsin an island of prohibition. Recreational marijuana is legal to Wisconsin’s north in Michigan and to the south in Illinois. Both Minnesota and Iowa allow medical marijuana.
Eighteen states have fully legalized marijuana.
The strongest advocates for full legalization say the Republican-backed bill falls far short of what is needed.
“We cannot settle for half-baked, insufficient legislation that is nothing more than a political ploy to give folks false hope on the prospects of cannabis legalization here in Wisconsin,” Democratic Sen. Melissa Agard, a proponent of full legalization, said in a statement ahead of the hearing. She planned to testify against the bill.
“We must put our efforts behind full cannabis legalization,” Agard said.
Bill sponsor Sen. Mary Felzkowski, a Republican from Tomahawk, insisted that her goal was not to allow for legalizing recreational marijuana, but to give people another treatment option.
“Who are we to tell you if you can’t have a drug or a natural product to help you out,” said Felzkowski, a cancer survivor who said her doctor supported medical marijuana as an option.
Rep. Pat Snyder, the lead sponsor in the Assembly, noted that 37 other states — both under Republican and Democratic control — have already legalized medical marijuana.
“I don’t know why we’re so behind the times,” he said.
Snyder pushed back against those who want full legalization, saying that would never pass the Republican-controlled Legislature. However, both he and Felzkowski said medical marijuana is different.
“Medical marijuana is not a partisan issue,” Felzkowski testified. “This is an issue for all of us.”
The Wisconsin Medical Society, which represents doctors in the state, issued a statement calling the proposal premature given a lack of research into marijuana.
“Until science can determine which elements in grown marijuana are potentially therapeutic and which are potentially harmful, any ‘medical’ marijuana program is at best a pale imitation of true medical therapies developed through scientific research,” said the medical society’s lobbyist Mark Grapentine in the statement.
This session in Wisconsin there were bills from Democrats and Republicans that would legalize medical marijuana, from Democrats that would also legalize it for recreational use, and a bipartisan measure that would decriminalize the possession of marijuana.
All of those measures died when the Republican-controlled Legislature adjourned its session in February.
Felzkowski’s bill is limited. For example, it doesn’t allow smoking medical marijuana, a concession she said she made to address concerns some had about secondhand smoke. She also has said not allowing smoking would garner more support from Republican lawmakers. The Democratic medical marijuana bill would have allowed smoking it.
Her bill also allows for medical marijuana to be prescribed for a limited number of medical conditions, but she said she was open to broadening who would be eligible.
The hearing was scheduled on April 20, also known as “420 Day,” an annual day of celebration of marijuana. Felzkowski said that was a coincidence and she picked Wednesday for the hearing because it was when most people were available.
“I’m sorry, I was totally clueless on what 420′s reference was, maybe that shows my age,” Felzkowski, 58, said ahead of the hearing. “My staff said, ‘Yes, we thought you knew.’ I’m just a little bit older and not up on the reference.”