By David A. Hayford
“I didn’t inhale,” was Bill Clinton’s response about using marijuana. That joins a long line of Presidential prevarications. Though it is certainly not as serious as the first Bush and “Read my lips. No new taxes.” Or Obama’s promise: “If you like your health care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health care plan.” But enough of levity: this month’s topic is serious. We are discussing decriminalization of marijuana, and the legalization of medical marijuana in Wisconsin. These are two very different topics, initial steps on the road to Colorado.
Medical use of marijuana is legal in twenty states and D.C. Rules vary by state. For example, 18 have a residency requirement, 15 allow home cultivation, and there is a wide variation regarding registration and ID card requirements. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently ran a story about a local 6-year-old girl with a rare seizure disorder. Children in Colorado afflicted by the same disease have access to cannabis oil. It has been stripped of most THC, the chemical which produces the high sought by recreational users. One user there went from 300 seizures per week to a few per month. The Wisconsin child does not have access to it. In order to obtain access, the Wisconsin Legislature must act. But Rep. Gordon Hintz (D, 54th District) informed me that “there is not much action in Wisconsin” on the issue. Bills have been introduced in the 2009-10, 2011-12, and the current session. In fact, a bill was originally introduced in January 2001.
Unlike most issues in Madison these days, it does not appear to be a partisan issue. Democrats controlled both houses and the governorship in the 2009-10 session, and Republicans have controlled them since. And the two parties have worked together on recent legislation regarding heroin use, so it is not impossible. It seems like a “no brainer” when hearing the story of the young Milwaukee girl. Supporters of the bill argue it can be a valuable medical treatment for those suffering serious disease. A group called IMMLY (Is My Medicine Legal Yet), a self-described “not-for-profit patient and care provider-based group,” polled Wisconsin residents a couple years ago with the result that 80 percent favor medical use of marijuana. An alternative for those suffering are a number of prescription painkillers, such as Vicodin. Of course, those can cause serious addiction problems.
On the other hand, Republican Senator Leah Vukmir, Chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, believes that the proper means to approve drugs is the Federal Food and Drug Administration. She also points out that the Wisconsin Medical Society does not support the bill; though it appears that the WMS has softened its stance from outright opposition to the need for more research. Other opposition is based on a concern that legalization for medical use will have other unforeseen repercussions, including law enforcement challenges.
What about decriminalization? Or legalization? Currently marijuana is a Schedule I 4 hallucinogenic substance under the Wisconsin Uniform Controlled Substances Act, per Wis. Stat 961.14. Wisconsin law states that a first-time possession of marijuana or paraphernalia offense is a misdemeanor. Subsequent such offenses, sale or delivery, and cultivation are felonies.
Local communities in Wisconsin can effectively decriminalize, either overtly, or by not pursuing or prosecuting minor possessions. Winnebago County District Attorney Gossett informed me law enforcement is concerned more with prevention and safety than convictions.
Colorado is the first state to legalize marijuana, as of this month. Washington will be following soon. Now any Colorado resident can buy an ounce of marijuana at any of 40 dispensaries around the state. In the past, the dispensaries distributed only for medical purposes. Non-residents can purchase a quarter ounce, which must be used within the state.
Taxes on the legal sales will benefit state coffers, and be used for educational purposes. Projections for 2014 are for $600 million in sales and $70 million in tax revenues.
A newspaper account stated the “price for high quality weed at some shops is $400.” Included is a 25 percent retail tax, 10 sales tax, and 1.5 percent excise tax. That is, astonishingly, four times more than the black market, according to the same article. It seems logical to me that, once the euphoria of buying legal marijuana wears off, consumers will revert to the more economical black market. We shall see. . .
Since this is an opinion piece, I shall render such. Regarding medical use, there are still questions to resolve. But I believe there will be an inexorable trend towards approval, state by state. Wisconsin will eventually fall in line. But I must oppose full legalization. It is a gateway drug for teens. It causes brain damage in young users. Legalization will make access easier for them. I believe that is deleterious for them and for society as a whole.
David Hayford was a banker, now works for a political campaign and Day by Day Warming Shelter.