Nearly three weeks after introducing a bill to legalize recreational marijuana, state Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, has attracted six co-sponsors, all Democrats.
Joining Sargent’s pot proposal in the Assembly are Reps. Terese Berceau and Brett Hulsey of Madison, Rep. Sondy Pope of Cross Plains, Rep. Fred Clark of Baraboo and Rep. Tod Ohnstad of Kenosha.
The lone Senate co-sponsor is Sen. Nikiya Harris of Milwaukee.
Sargent acknowledges that the support her bill has garnered does not reflect the influence necessary to get majority support from her own party’s caucus, let alone the Republican-controlled Legislature.
But she thinks it’s a good start in the long-term campaign to realize a policy that was recently implemented in Colorado and Washington state.
“I think the fact that we have the sponsors is good news,” she said. “I’m impressed with the list we have. I think there are probably other people who are supportive of it.”
That Harris signed on to the bill appears to be evidence of progress on Sargent’s cause in recent weeks. Last month Harris was noncommittal on the issue of marijuana legalization, saying only that the status quo had to be “carefully reexamined” in light of the cost, both social and economic, of arresting people for non-violent drug offenses.
But in a statement to the Cap Times on Tuesday, Harris said she was ready to get behind full legalization.
“My decision to support Rep. Sargent’s bill comes after reflecting on the significant costs of our current marijuana policy and the growing problem of mass incarceration in our state,” she said, noting the disparate effect pot crackdowns have had on African-Americans.
“While studies show that whites' and African-Americans' marijuana usage is fairly consistent, African Americans are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites,” she said.
The only concerns Sargent reported hearing from fellow Democrats came from some supporters of a bill that would legalize marijuana solely for medical purposes. In the past, Republicans have alleged that medical marijuana is a Trojan horse that pot advocates use to eventually make the drug accessible to recreational smokers.
“I’ve heard from some people who really support the (medical marijuana) bill that this might be some muddying of the conversation,” she said.
Indeed, Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, a strong proponent of medical marijuana declined to answer questions about recreational pot earlier this year. He did not respond to another request for comment on the issue Tuesday.
Sargent does not believe the bill will be addressed in the remaining weeks of the legislative session.
“While I’d love to say we’ll have a public hearing on this bill, more than anything this is to begin a conversation,” she said.
Of the bill co-sponsors, Clark recently announced he will not run for reelection and Hulsey, who has had a public falling out with Democratic Party leadership, is facing two primary opponents and has not decided whether he will run for reelection again.
One of his opponents, Madison Ald. Mark Clear, indicated he would support the pot legalization bill, saying “prohibition has failed.”
Clear said that he believes seeing Colorado and Washington cope with legalization could help reluctant politicians in Wisconsin embrace the concept of legal pot.
“I think that there’s some fear that politically that might be somewhat of a loser,” he said. “I actually don’t think that’s the case.”
Clear’s only declared primary opponent, fellow Madison Ald. Lisa Subeck, is not willing to commit to legalization yet, although like most Democrats, she emphasizes her support for legalization of medical cannabis and suggests the state shouldn’t be spending significant time and money cracking down on pot offenders.
“I am open to considering Rep. Sargent's bill for full legalization and look forward to doing additional research on the bill's impact before committing my support,” she said recently.