Pubdate: Fri, 27 Dec 2013
Source: Baraboo News Republic  (WI)
Copyright: 2013 Capital Newspapers
Author: Elizabeth Onheiber

Growing Support


Despite more support for the legislation than ever before among 
Wisconsin lawmakers, an ongoing effort to legalize marijuana for 
medical use in the state appears to be headed nowhere.

Even with unprecedented public support and backing from more members 
of the Legislature than at any time in history, sponsors admit the 
bill is likely to fail again.

So far, 21 states have legalized and established a system to regulate 
marijuana for medical purposes. In Wisconsin, a version of the bill 
failed in 2009 after a dramatic public showdown between state Sens. 
Leah Vukmir and Jon Erpenbach, and another version died in committee in 2012.

Erpenbach, D-Middleton, is the leading sponsor of the Jacki Rickert 
Medical Marijuana Act. The senator, whose district includes Baraboo 
and much of eastern Sauk County, said he found it disappointing that 
the bill has failed to advance under both Democratic and Republican 
leadership in the Legislature.

He said he remains dubious about the bill's chances of success in the 
immediate future, but added public perception about the legislation 
is changing. He pointed to a Fox News poll taken in May that showed 
85 percent of Americans support medical marijuana laws.

"The public is far ahead of lawmakers on this issue," he said. 
Staunch opposition

Vukmir's opposition to the bill is central to supporters' pessimism 
about its chances. As chair of the Senate Health Committee, it is 
unlikely she will allow it to come up for a vote.

"I've opposed it in the past and I will oppose it again." Sen. Vukmir 
has said, stating that she doesn't believe marijuana has any 
medicinal value. The last time the bill received a hearing was in 
December 2009, which resulted in a dramatic public showdown between 
Vukmir and Erpenbach. Vukmir said she believed the bill was intended 
to pave the way for legalization of marijuana for recreational uses, 
in addition to medical uses. Two states have moved forward with 
recreational legalization, including Washington and Colorado. 
Vukmir's office did not return calls seeking comment for this article.

Despite the obstacles, Rep. Chris Danou, D-Trempeleau, said he 
supports the bill and will fight on behalf of its namesake.

"Chances of it passing are honestly pretty slim, but Jacki Rickert is 
my constituent and I will do everything I possibly can for her," he said.

Rickert is the founder and executive director of Is My Medicine Legal 
Yet? and a long-time medical marijuana patient and advocate. She says 
marijuana helped her put on weight when she dropped to only 68 
pounds, and helps relieve pain and symptoms of advanced reflex 
sympathetic dystrophy and a rare genetic disease that attacks her 
body's connective tissue called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. Jacki has 
been involved in every Wisconsin medical marijuana bill introduced 
since the mid-1990s and since 2007, state legislation has carried her 
name - The Jacki Rickert Medical Marijuana Act, now known as the 
Jacki Rickert Medical Cannabis Act. Inconclusive research

Critics contend there are concerns about the use of the drug that 
require more thorough research. The FDA doesn't approve of smoking 
anything as a medicine because the dosage can't be controlled and 
inhaling smoke exposes the lungs to hazardous carcinogens.

In 2012, the Wisconsin Medical Society changed its position of 
actively opposing medical marijuana to match the view of the American 
Medical Society, in which the groups ask the National Institute of 
Health, the DEA and the FDA to reclassify the plant and allow studies 
to be conducted on medical marijuana and for the government to 
potentially fund. Additionally, the medical organizations state that 
it should not be a crime for patients and their doctors to discuss 
marijuana as an alternative treatment plan. The resolution passed 
with little opposition at the state level. However, the Wisconsin 
Medical Society stresses its position should not be viewed as an 
endorsement of the use of cannabis.

Rep. Fred Clark, D-Baraboo, who is a sponsor of the bill in the 
Assembly, says he believes it is a positive sign that marijuana is 
being discussed more often in the medical community, and that 
legislators from both parties have begun to realize that a patient 
with a chronic condition using marijuana is a reasonable thing to consider.

"There are some conditions that marijuana is actually a better 
treatment for instead of narcotic painkillers," Clark said. "If we 
can help people get those medical needs, I think it's common sense." 
Evolving views

Rep. Ed Brooks, R-Reedsburg, said he understands attitudes are 
changing about marijuana and he is sympathetic to patients, but 
remains concerned about a lack of medical consensus on the issue. He 
added the drug remains illegal at the federal level and said a 
decision by the state to allow its citizens to violate federal law 
should not be taken lightly. Brooks said he has an open mind, but 
that Wisconsin should not be in a hurry to move forward with 
marijuana legislation.

In August, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced a policy shift 
at the federal level in which he stated the Department of Justice 
would not challenge state laws legalizing marijuana use for medical 
or recreational purposes and instead would focus on keeping the drug 
out of the hands of minors and preventing its spread to states where 
the drug remained outlawed. He also announced the federal government 
would not seek to enforce prohibitions on operations growing or 
selling marijuana in states where it has been legalized, so long as 
those operations complied with local laws. Despite the change, 
cannabis remains a Schedule I controlled substance at the federal 
level, a category that includes heroin, methamphetamines and other drugs.

Not everyone is convinced.

Sen. Ted Kanavas, R-Brookfield, said in a 2009 marijuana debate with 
Erpenbach that marijuana is a drug of abuse that creates dependencies 
and other long-term problems. He says Republicans empathize with 
struggling patients but said his stance was about creating policies 
that fit Wisconsin's values and culture. "The bill won't pass if 
people find out what it really does," he correctly predicted at the time.

Critics also have expressed concern that a change in the law would 
allow dispensaries to pop up on every corner like in California and 
Kanavas said he doesn't want the government to get involved in the 
marijuana business.

Kanavas said even regulating the drug for medical purposes could send 
a message that its use is acceptable, and may lead to more recreational use.

"It's a gateway drug," he said.

Wisconsin has some of the harshest penalties for marijuana possession 
in the Midwest. A second pot possession offense is an automatic 
felony; in contrast it takes four drunken driving offenses to 
constitute a felony. Those laws recently were strengthened through a 
bill approved by the state Legislature that allows municipal courts 
to prosecute marijuana possession cases that were not pursued by the 
local district attorney's office. In some Wisconsin counties, 
district attorneys have declined to prosecute marijuana possession 
cases as misdemeanor crimes, citing backlogs of cases and an 
overbooked criminal justice system. Moral dilemma

Despite the move to increase criminal prosecutions for marijuana 
possession, the reality of those with severe medical conditions has 
led others to push forward with the effort to legalize marijuana for 
those who suffer from chronic conditions.

Sen. John Lehman, D-Racine, said his support for the legislation came 
from conversations with cancer patients who said the drug helped 
relieve feelings of nausea experienced during cancer.

Lehman said some of those he spoke with were uncomfortable violating 
state and federal laws when using marijuana, but they felt desperate 
for relief from nausea.

Rep. Terese Berceau, D-Madison, a two-time cancer survivor, and Rep. 
Eric Genrich, D-Green Bay, who recently lost his mother-in-law to 
brain cancer, support the bill for similar reasons.

"It would have been nice to have as an option for pain relief," 
Genrich said, adding that he does not understand why pain medications 
such as morphine that can have side effects and the potential for 
addiction or an overdose are readily available but medical marijuana is not.

Erpenbach said the cause gained his support when he first met Gary 
Storck. Storck first used medical marijuana 41 years ago to relieve 
glaucoma. At his appointment that day his doctor found his ocular 
pressure to be as close to normal as it had ever been. Storck is one 
of the driving forces behind Wisconsin's continued medical marijuana 
effort as co-founder of Is My Medicine Legal Yet? and former 
president of the Wisconsin and Madison National Organization for the 
Reform of Marijuana Laws groups.

Storck said the transformation of the issue into one of partisanship 
has been "mystifying."

He pointed to past efforts to pass medical marijuana legislation from 
former Republican state legislators Greg Underheim of Oshkosh and 
Rick Skindrud of Mt. Horeb as evidence that the issue had not always 
been a partisan matter. In 2003, as chair of the Assembly Health 
Committee, Underheim introduced a cannabis bill and did so and again 
in 2005. In 2000 and 2001 Skindrud held informational hearings on 
medical cannabis.

"It is my hope that if we continue to bring up the issue we will move 
the opinions of Wisconsin legislators blocking the proposal and have 
success for seriously-ill patients seeking relief in our state," he 
said. What's in the bill?

In its current form, the bill would prohibit arrest and prosecution 
for marijuana of a patient who has a valid registry ID card or is an 
approved caregiver unless they have too much pot -- 12 live plants or 
3 ounces of cannabis -- operate a motor vehicle, or smoke around 
schools, parks, work, or public transit.

Prospective patients would submit a signed application with a medical 
written certification and a fee of no more than $150. The Department 
of Health and Human Services would not be allowed to disclose any 
patient information unless it's to validate a registry card to law 
enforcement. Visitors to Wisconsin with valid cards in their home 
jurisdiction would be allowed to use medical marijuana.

Anyone could petition DHS to add a medical condition or treatment to 
qualify someone as a medical marijuana patient. DHS would hold a 
public hearing on the petition and make its decision within 180 days, 
which would then be subject to judicial review.

"Compassion centers" would dispense the marijuana provided they are 
non-profit organizations, pay an annual fee of $5,000, an application 
fee of $250, are not located within 500 feet of a school, and don't 
possess or distribute too much pot.

Current Wisconsin Chapter NORML President Nate Petreman doesn't 
expect the medical marijuana industry to generate much economic 
activity due in part to the fact that the medicine would be sold 
tax-free and dispensaries are required to be non-profit organizations.

"The savings will be with law enforcement and judicial costs, since 
there will be no need to charge card-holding patients," Petreman 
said. "Michigan has shown a small surplus from this."

Officials from the State Public Defender's Office and Wisconsin 
Department of Administration have said they do not believe the court 
system caseload would increase if the bill passed. Both agencies also 
said they could not determine whether the bill would result in any 
savings. SB363/AB480 sponsors

Wisconsin Senate

Jon Erpenbach, D- Middleton

Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee

Tim Cullen, D-Janesville

Nikiya Harris, D-Milwaukee

John Lehman, D-Racine

Wisconsin Assembly

Terese Berceau, D-Madison

Fred Clark, D-Baraboo

Chris Danou, D-Trempeleau

Eric Genrich, D-Green Bay

Diane Hesselbein, D-Middleton

Tod Ohnstad, D-Kenosha

Sandy Pasch, D-Shorewood

Sony Pope, D-Cross Plains

Melissa Sargent, D-Madison

Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point

Chris Taylor, D-Madison

Leon Young, D-Milwaukee

Josh Zepnick, D-Milwaukee
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom