Should Wisconsin Legalize Marijuana for Medicinal Purposes? Here’s What Panelists Said

A panel discussion at the Milwaukee Press Club raised the question.

The debate over permitting the use marijuana for medical and recreational purposes has been ongoing in Wisconsin for many years, but proposed legislation has never been brought to a vote.

Now, marijuana has been approved for medical use in 33 states and for both medical and recreational use in 11 states including, as of Jan. 1, neighboring Illinois.

Despite the continuing roadblocks, State Rep. Melissa Sargent, a Democrat from Madison, believes legislation legalizing marijuana will be approved, eventually.

“The genie is out of the bottle, folks,” Sargent told a crowd gathered for a Milwaukee Press Club panel discussion on the topic held at 88Nine Radio Milwaukee’s studio on Monday. “This is going to happen, and we need to make sure that we are doing it in a way the brings the right people together.”

Sargent said her efforts to get legislation passed have been stymied by a pair of “very, very powerful” Republicans, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau.

“Because of the way our state government works, not every bill that is introduced is provided the opportunity to have a public hearing,” Sargent said. “That is a challenge in order to have legislation move forward.”

Vos was scheduled to be part of the panel but didn’t show due to illness.

Sargent admitted that her political leanings may be hindering the process.

“I am a proud and unapologetic, progressive Democrat, and I think, maybe, as the lead sponsor of the bill, that might have some sort of impact as to why it’s not going forward,” she said. “But I work very well with my colleagues on the other side of the aisle on many different issues and have taken the opportunity to talk to many of them about this policy. The message I continue to hear is that this is not a priority of leadership.”

Sargent insisted that there is strong and widespread support to legalize marijuana use in the Wisconsin. A Marquette University Law School poll supports her contention, finding that substantial majority of respondents, 83 percent, approve the use of marijuana for medical purposes with a doctor’s prescription while 59 percent indicated that recreational marijuana use should legal.

Although Vos has indicated that he would favor medical marijuana use with restrictions, Fitzgerald has been resistant of any move toward legalization under any circumstance.

“The only place where this is a partisan and divisive conversation is in the State Capitol Building in Madison,” Sargent said.

Sargent has introduced bills to fully legalize marijuana use in Wisconsin on multiple occasions since taking office in 2012. Last May, she introduced Assembly Bill 220, which updated the prior proposals.

“We do need regulation. We need education. And we need to have the right people at the table,” Sargent said. “But the fact that we aren’t moving forward in Wisconsin is bad for business. We have a billion-dollar industry knocking on the doors of the state of Wisconsin.”

Panelist Angela Janis, a psychiatrist for the state of Wisconsin and former chief medical officer of LeafLine Labs, a Minnesota manufacturer and distributor of cannabis for medical use, said the availability of marijuana could have benefitted her father, who died two years ago from complications of liver cancer. He had lived in Illinois but Janis moved him to Madison so she could be close-by.

“At the end of his life I never felt guiltier for taking him out of a state that had medical cannabis available to a state where we didn’t,” Janis said. “I still feel guilty about that because he would have benefitted. I saw him get medication after medication with serious side effects and serious complications while trying to control his nausea and pain. It just makes you want to pound your head against a wall. If we were 100 miles south, he would have had access to this.”

A third panelist, Cecilia Hillard, Associate Dean for Research and Director of the Neuroscience Research Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin, spoke of several concerns pertaining to marijuana legalization, including referring to the drug as a medicine.

“Calling it medicinal tends to reduce the perception that it has any harm,” Hillard said. “I would agree that we are sort of off kilter in terms of how safe or how risky cannabis use is. Yes, we have the people who are the reefer madness types who are saying that you are going to go crazy if you use it. But we also have people at the other end of the spectrum who say that it has absolutely no harm at all. I think the literature suggests that the truth is somewhere in the middle.”

Hillard also stressed that there is little hard evidence of the medical benefits of marijuana.

She noted that formal tests have shown marijuana to be effective in treating some forms of chronic pain, controlling nausea and vomiting for patients with cancer who are receiving chemotherapy, and for reducing spasticity for those afflicted with multiple sclerosis.

“That’s it for right now,” Hillard said. “We all hear a lot of anecdotal reports about other things it is good for, and it may be, but we don’t have the data, and that makes it very difficult for health care providers to advise patients as to whether this is something they should use.”

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.