Wisconsin lawmakers work to legalize medical pot, Illinois expunging minor cannabis crimes

After years of opposition to any form of marijuana legalization in Wisconsin, Republican lawmakers are now working privately to build support for a medical cannabis program that could win bipartisan backing and be enacted into law later this year, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told The Associated Press on Thursday.

For now, the group of lawmakers — whom Vos declined to name — are working only among Assembly Republicans to build enough support, and he hopes to introduce the plan this fall. Vos has long backed some form of medical marijuana program, but no bill has ever received a vote in either the GOP-controlled Assembly or Senate.

Vos said he remains steadfastly opposed to legalizing recreational marijuana and does not want to create a medical program that would be a precursor to that. Wisconsin remains an outlier nationally, with medical marijuana legal in 38 states and recreational marijuana legal in 21.

The push for legalization in Wisconsin has gained momentum, as neighboring Illinois and Michigan allow recreational use while Minnesota and Iowa have legalized medical use.


"We are not Illinois. We are not California. We are not Colorado," Vos said in an interview. "We are a state that’s at best purple. And purple is not legalization of recreational marijuana."

Illinois legalized recreation marijuana in 2019, and enacted provisions allowing residents with minor convictions to clear their records.

New Leaf Illinois is a consortium of legal aid clinics that get a share of the state's cannabis tax windfall to help defendants. You can discuss your case with attorneys by completing an online survey at NewLeafIllinois.org.

Currently, there are just over 3,300 open cases with partnering law clinics, but state records show more than 700,000 prior arrests may be eligible for expungement.

Vos’s announcement that Republicans have been working on a deal he hopes can pass the Legislature comes on April 20, or "420 Day," marijuana’s high holiday. Advocates for pot legalization planned to announce a "Grass Routes Tour" that will make four stops across the state to promote cannabis legalization.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard, who is leading the fight for full legalization, cast doubt on Vos’ intentions.

"We’ve seen this story before — but actions speak louder than words," Agard said in a statement. "Session after session, the Speaker has come forward with empty promises but no tangible steps toward any form of legal cannabis Wisconsin."

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers proposed full legalization of marijuana in his state budget, an idea that Republicans vowed to reject. Last April 20, a Republican-authored bill creating a medical marijuana program received a public hearing, the first time any such bill made it that far in the GOP-controlled Legislature.

However, the bill died in committee.

Senate Republicans have been less open to pot legalization than those in the Assembly. But in January, Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu said a bill to create a medical marijuana program could pass this legislative session — as long as regulations are put forward to ensure it’s for those in serious pain.

Sixty-four percent of Wisconsinites support legalizing marijuana for any use, according to October polling by the Marquette University Law School. More than 80% of Wisconsinites supported the idea of a medical marijuana program, according to 2019 polling.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.