Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin are now “close” to supporting legislation to legalize medical marijuana, Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu said last week. Support for legalizing medical cannabis signals a change in stance for Republican legislators in Wisconsin, who last year opposed a medical marijuana bill that was supported by Democrats including Governor Tony Evers.

LeMahieu, who has opposed liberalizing Wisconsin’s cannabis laws, told reporters that he believes a medical marijuana bill could be passed by the state’s lawmakers this legislative session. But he noted that the success of the proposal would depend on having a bill that restricts the use of medical marijuana to patients who are experiencing serious chronic pain.

“Our caucus is getting pretty close on medical marijuana,” LeMahieu told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Thursday. “A lot of our members, who are maybe at a point where they can vote for it now, they just want to make sure it’s regulated well.”

“We don’t want people going in because their back hurts and getting medical marijuana,” he added. “It needs to be cancer pain, you know — prescribed.”

Change In Republican Stance

LeMahieu’s comments indicate a significant change in position for Republican leadership in the state Senate. Both LeMahieu and former Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald have been vocally opposed to legalizing marijuana. In 2021, LeMahieu said he would not support legalizing medical marijuana unless the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved cannabis as a prescription drug. 

But opposition to medical marijuana legalization has not been unanimous among Republican state lawmakers in Wisconsin. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, also a Republican, has shown support for legalizing cannabis for medicinal use. Although a spokesperson did not confirm that Vos supports Republican efforts this year, LeMahieu said that he thinks the proposal “could be” supported by Assembly Republicans in 2023.

Republican state Senator Mary Felzkowski said last week that she plans to reintroduce legislation that would create a medical marijuana program that is tightly controlled by the state. Under the proposal, only cannabis preparations such as tinctures, liquids, pills, and topicals would be legalized for use by patients in the state-run program.

At a hearing on the previous bill in April 2022, Felzkowski said that she became interested in medical marijuana in 2014 after going through treatment for stage 4 breast cancer. She noted that the drugs she was prescribed to fight her cancer caused excruciating pain that could only legally be relieved with highly addictive opioids. 

“We are actually having those conversations right now — I can’t talk in for-sures, but will be reintroducing the bill,” Felzkowski said.

Last year’s proposal to legalize medical marijuana in Wisconsin died in the state legislature after failing to gain the support of Republican lawmakers. The bill was also opposed by the Wisconsin Medical Society, which cited a lack of research to support using cannabis medicinally.

“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,” Mark Grapentine, chief policy and advocacy officer for the medical professionals trade group, wrote in a memo to Felzkowski in April.

Strong Support For Cannabis Reform In Wisconsin

But public support for marijuana policy reform is strong in Wisconsin. A Marquette University Law School poll published in October showed that 64% of Wisconsinites support legalizing cannabis for any use, while a separate survey conducted in 2019 showed that 80% are in favor of legalizing medical marijuana. 

Democratic state lawmakers in Wisconsin have so far led the drive to legalize marijuana in the state. Evers, who has long supported cannabis policy reform as the state’s governor, plans to include a legalization proposal in the state budget for this year, just as he did in 2021.

“Wisconsinites overwhelmingly support a path toward legalizing and regulating marijuana like we do alcohol while ensuring folks can access the life-saving medication they need,” Britt Cudaback, a spokeswoman for the governor, said in a statement. “As Gov. Evers indicated on Tuesday, he’s looking forward to working together with legislators on both sides of the aisle this session to find common ground on this important issue.”

Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard has led several proposals to legalize marijuana from Wisconsin Democrats that have been thwarted by Republican lawmakers. She said that she looks forward to seeing the details of the medical marijuana legalization proposal from Senate Republicans. 

But Agard said that she disagrees with selecting “winners and losers” whose chance of using medical marijuana depends on what kind of pain is arbitrarily included as a qualifying condition to participate in the program.

“I will always be a champion for full legalization of cannabis in Wisconsin,” said Agard. “I know that’s what a majority of people in our state want and we know the most dangerous thing about cannabis is that it remains illegal.”

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