By Mary Freeman
Melissa Sargent is a State Representative championing the Bill for Full Legalization of Marijuana in Wisconsin. Although 29 states have medical marijuana and 8 states have Fully Legalized for recreational use with revenues exceeding billions of dollars, last month Bill LRB-2457 didn’t even get a public hearing.
We sat down to talk about the challenges facing Wisconsin to Fully Legalize Cannabis and why is it that we can’t pass this pragmatically and thoughtfully written piece of legislation that will increase our tax revenue by hundreds of millions of dollars, bring in tens of billions of dollars of economic benefits and create thousands and thousands of jobs with no additional tax dollars?
MARY: How long have you been working on this Bill to Fully Legalize Cannabis?
MELISSA: Five years. This is the third session I introduced the Bill, and each session the Bill has changed based on conversations I’ve had with people calling, writing letters, coming to my office and many other ways expressing their feelings about Legalization. Recently, a poll by Marquette University shows 59% of Wisconsinites want Full Legalization and a national poll recently stated we are up to 64% nationwide, with many Republicans being in favor for the first time in history.
MARY: How is this Bill different from other state’s that have Legalized Cannabis?
MELISSA: This Bill is the most significant Bill in the Nation because it has been written by the people in Wisconsin, as opposed to special interest groups writing the Bill in all the other states. Although many of the people want Cannabis Fully Legalized, the ones who don’t are still in control and quite frankly, terrified. We are living under a Governor who has come out publicly and said he would veto this Bill even if it made it through the legislative process. But we are ordinary people who love our State and love our people, and we need to be tenacious and have tough conversations, and not give up.
MARY: Why are people terrified of Legalization?
MELISSA: The biggest concerns come from lies and false information about Cannabis told over the last 80 years since prohibition. We need to reeducate our communities about the benefits of Cannabis and Full Legalization will allow for the truthful narrative to be told. Another fear is the message we are sending to our children. I am a mother of four boys. The policies which impact our children is a huge motivator for me. Kids are smart, and quite frankly we are lying to them about what Cannabis is by placing it in the same category as cocaine and heroin. Another fear is addiction, but it’s hard to learn about addiction of Cannabis because of the prohibition.
MARY: Every day that goes by, we Wisconsinites are losing revenue and opportunities due to the current laws, while dealing with serious economic deficits in education, healthcare and transportation. How does the proven economics of the Cannabis industry continue to be ignored by our current leaders?
MELISSA: The 2018 elections are going to be very important. Cannabis Legalization needs to be addressed by all people running for office, including the Governor. That’s why it’s very important everyone call their elected officials in support of Full Legalization. My name will be on the ballot as well and after reelection I will introduce the Bill again in 2019. In the meantime, I am working very hard with my colleagues at the Capital to encourage them to sign in support.
MARY: You had the courage to champion this issue while having to endure much adversity. Now that it is becoming a popular, proven billion-dollar industry, what’s preventing special interest groups from coming to Wisconsin and writing a bill to cash in on the billion-dollar industry here?
MELISSA: Nothing. Quite frankly in Wisconsin, that’s how most of the legislation is being drafted. I’m a glass half full kind a girl, but when it comes to the Bills that are passing in Wisconsin, clearly the system is rigged. It is rigged by the rich and powerful, and their own interests.
MARY: There has been a medicinal only Bill introduced. This legislation will create a community dependent upon doctors for their “prescription” while putting all the profits into the hands of the wealthy 1%. Under this legislature, healthy people are still considered criminals for using Cannabis. Your thoughts?
MELISSA: Yes! That is why Full Legalization is so important! Your doctors can prescribe Cannabis like any other medicine. But the Bill also addresses recreational use simultaneously. It’s your liberty and freedom to be able to relax the way you choose. And we also know many Wisconsinites have utilized the Plant at some time in their life, and they are not criminals!
MARY: Some of the states where Cannabis is legal are already amending their Bill, allowing for the Plant to be used in designated public spaces, just like alcohol. Your Bill does not include that. Why?
MELISSA: Remember, I’m dealing with people who are terrified of this Bill. The states that have Full Legalization, have allowed their communities to see the bottom does not drop. As a matter of fact, the communities are getting better and healthier and prospering. I believe once this Bill passes we will move in that direction. This Bill is not the end. It is the beginning.
MARY: For over 80 years, thousands of families and lives have been destroyed with entire communities stuck in a hopeless cycle of poverty due to incarceration of mostly Black and Latino American men. Now White America is embracing this capitalistic, entrepreneurial industry, while leaving the so-called criminals behind. Should we be designing a Bill that allows for special priority to help people who have suffered most since Cannabis prohibition when it comes to distributing licenses?
MELISSA: My brother and sister are black, and I’ve spent my life witnessing how the world treated us differently. Black men are seven times more likely than white men to get charged with Cannabis possession in Dane County, so there are a couple of interesting things I have included in this Bill. One, is for the first five years, the Cannabis Industry in Wisconsin will be Wisconsin run. Big businesses like Phillip Morris can come, but give us five years so the people can get a head start. I also drafted it in a way that if you have a nonviolent offense relating to Cannabis you are not prohibited from the industry. A lot of the states who have legalized have not addressed that. I have also been working very closely with the tribes. We have 11 Sovereign Nations in the State of Wisconsin, and all the oppressed need to rise and demand the opportunity to prosper.
MARY: In less than two years since Legalization, it has become cost prohibitive for the average person to enter the Cannabis industry considering license applications are six figures and higher in most states. How can we prevent that from happening in Wisconsin?
MELISSA: It depends on whether you are a grower, distributor, or seller, but our licenses start with a $250 application fee and go up to as much as $5000 annually, so these numbers clearly show the average person would have the opportunity to enter the industry.
MARY: Look into your crystal ball. What is your hope and timeline for Full Legalization in Wisconsin?
MELISSA: It is my hope Wisconsin will be the first state that passes this legislation through the legislature. All the other states have passed through a ballot initiative referendum. Wisconsin does not have that option or we would be legalizing for sure, according to the recent polls. But I think it will happen in the next five years.
MARY: What can the average person do to help Fully Legalize Cannabis in Wisconsin?
MELISSA: We need a groundswell from all levels across Wisconsin calling their elected officials and telling them to support the Full Legalization Bill. The good news is there are new conversations happening at the Capital about Cannabis every day, but frankly, the heavy lifting still needs to occur in communities across the state to get people who are willing to stand up, and say I support this! I am not a criminal. I am a business owner. I am a mother. I am a responsible human being. I am a valuable citizen. And I use Cannabis.
To read Bill LRB-2457, or for more information, visit http://legis.wisconsin.gov/assembly/48/sargent/media/1267/mj-legalization.pdf
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