Madison Representative Melissa Sargent (D) introduced legislation to legalize marijuana in Wisconsin.
This is not the first time. She introduced the bill over the last two legislative sessions, but she believes it is more timely and worthy of consideration than ever before. Rep. Sargent cited the budget crisis in the state as the primary reason for marijuana legalization.
"Wisconsin is facing a $1 billion dollar budget deficit, an insolvent transportation fund, and no plans to increase revenue to fund some of our state's most important programs like public education," said Rep. Sargent.
She said the bill will help create new jobs and stimulate the economy with tax from marijuana sales going back into vital programs for Wisconsin.
Many Republican lawmakers have opposed the bill, and it does not currently have a Republican co-sponsor.
In April 2017, Governor Scott Walker (R) legalized possession of pot extract used to treat seizures.
The bill to legalize marijuana is getting mixed reviews in the La Crosse area. The big debate: is the financial impact worth individual health and safety risks? Although benefiting the state budget, the bill is raising red flags among local health care professionals.
Bill LRB-2457 would legalize marijuana medically for those over the age of 18 and recreationally for those over the age of 21.
"Just financially in the state's view, it's just a good idea for tax income," said Cyle Ring, Manager of Azara in La Crosse. "It helps schools out, it helps roads out. I saw that they were trying to pass toll roads in Wisconsin, and I think marijuana would make up for that instead of toll roads."
In a press conference, Rep. Sargent said, "The most dangerous thing about marijuana in Wisconsin is that it remains illegal." Local health professionals disagree and believe the potential dangers of marijuana are much more severe.
"Marijuana today is not the same as it was in the 70s and the 80s," said Judi Zabel, Health Educator with the La Crosse County Health Department. "It was only 3-percent level of THC in those early years. But now, we're looking at marijuana levels between 10 and 17-percent for smoking it here in La Crosse County."
Those THC levels impact a person both physically and mentally.
"Like any other substance that affects your brain activity, your motor skills, your memory--all of these things can lead to disasters," said Dr. Chris Eberlein with Gundersen Health System. "It can lead to car accidents. You're seeing an increase in ER visits due to psychosis, depression, anxiety--all related directly to marijuana."
"I have hopes for Wisconsin," said Ring. "I want it to be legalized for financial and other reasons."
Although marijuana legalization can divide people, health professionals want everyone to stay informed on the issue.
"Marijuana may have many positive qualities about it, but it has many, many unintended consequences," Zabel said.
"This is not a benign drug," Dr. Eberlein said. "It has serious consequences, and we have to be aware of those as we go forward in making decisions on whether it should be legalized for our state."
Eight other states have fully legalized marijuana. Health professionals encourage people to look at data from other states to get a better sense of the impacts--both positive and negative--legalization could have in Wisconsin.
The bill will be formally introduced in the next legislative session.