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Medical marijuana
ERIC RISBERG - Associated Press

In two states last year, voters legalized recreational marijuana. One of those states, Colorado, is similar politically to Wisconsin. 

And yet, few among Wisconsin’s political class appear to take pot legalization seriously. If anything, it is dismissed as a wacky western idea that has no place in the heartland.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke seemed amused when asked what she thought about cannabis legalization several weeks ago.

“I don’t think that’s where the people of Wisconsin are at,” said Burke, who has indicated she could support legalizing medical marijuana

Gary Storck, an activist with the Madison chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), pointed out in a letter-to-the-editor that the most recent statewide poll by the Marquette University Law School showed that roughly half of Wisconsin’s registered voters support full legalization of the drug.

Specifically, 49.7 percent supported legalization, 44.9 percent opposed and 4.7 percent didn’t know.

Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, the chief sponsor in the Assembly of a bill to set up a system for medical marijuana, said she is not sure where she stands on full legalization.

“I think there are pros and cons to it,” she said.

The lead sponsor of the medical marijuana bill in the Senate, Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, has said in the past that he does not support full legalization. A spokeswoman said on Friday that he was unavailable for comment on the issue.

Earlier this year, the Senate passed a bill that would empower municipalities to prosecute those caught with small amounts of marijuana, even if the district attorney decides to drop the charges. Six Democrats joined the chamber's 18 Republicans in supporting the measure. The division appeared largely generational, with the exception of Sen. Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Points, the Democrats who supported the bill were all at least in their late 60's.

Even medical marijuana remains out of reach. Not one Republican has signed on to Taylor and Erpenbach's bill, even though polls show an overwhelming majority of Americans support legalizing the drug for medicinal use. 

Democrats failed to pass a bill authorizing doctors to prescribe pot in 2010, when they controlled the legislature.

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The bill never reached a vote in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, a fact that pro-legalization activists attributed to Democrats who were scared of engaging a controversial issue during an election year. Activists even protested outside of a fundraiser for Lassa, a committee member whom they accused of blocking the legislation. At the time Lassa was waging an ultimately unsuccessful campaign for Congress against Sean Duffy, an Ashland prosecutor, and was perhaps reluctant to appear soft on crime issues.

Lassa is again not listed as a co-sponsor of the Erpenbach bill. She did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

Taylor attributes her party's hesitancy on pot to what she believes is an assumption on the part of Democrats that voters are more conservative than they actually are.

She points to a recent academic study that found that Democratic legislators across the country overestimated the conservatism of their constituents by an average of seven percentage points. Republicans overestimated their constituents' conservatism by a whopping 20 points.

One might expect some of the GOP lawmakers with ties to the anti-government tea party movement to support legalizing medical or even recreational marijuana.

But so far, few Republican legislators appear willing to follow the lead of Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., the tea party champion who has said he opposes prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders.

A notable exception is state Rep. Scott Krug, Town of Rome. A former cop, Krug has said he hopes to educate fellow Republicans on the benefits of alternatives to prison, particularly for drug offenders. But Krug is not close to suggesting that drug use should go unpunished, he simply believes there are more effective forms of punishment than prison.


Jack Craver is the Capital Times political reporter, focusing on elections, candidates and campaign finance.