Report: Half of Wisconsinites 21 and older live within 75 minutes of marijuana dispensary

It’s unclear whether Wisconsin Republicans will consider any proposal to legalize medical marijuana in the next state budget, with GOP leaders sending mixed signals on the issue last month. 

But a new report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum points out that 50 percent of all Wisconsinites above the age of 21 already have fairly easy access to the drug, living within a 75-minute drive to a recreational marijuana dispensary in another state.

Both Illinois and Michigan allow for recreational use of cannabis. Minnesota has approved medical marijuana, but state leaders are poised to approve recreational use this year. 

“It’s essentially an availability of a product without any sort of the enforcement mechanisms,” said Ari Brown, senior research associate at the Wisconsin Policy Forum. “Of course, it is still illegal to transport the drug across state lines. But to the extent that that can actually be enforced, I think we’re seeing there’s this kind of readily available supply out there and it doesn’t seem to be precluding people.”

Brown said what this means for Wisconsin is that residents are likely buying cannabis products, but the state has no policy control over those sales and isn’t profiting from the tax revenue.

He said Michigan collected around $111 million in fiscal year 2021, putting it toward K-12 schools, transportation and funding for municipalities and counties.

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“That is definitely some serious revenue,” Brown said. “In Wisconsin, we’re talking about a general fund budget that is in the $19 to $20 billion range. So nothing hugely transformative, but still definitely a large revenue stream that just wasn’t there before.”

That would also include taxes paid by visitors to the state. In Illinois, between 25 and 35 percent of monthly marijuana sales are to non-residents, according to the Policy Forum report. In 2022, Illinois brought in $445.3 million in state taxes from all weed sales.

With neighboring states moving more quickly on legalization, Brown said it’s hard to say whether non-resident sales would be significant in Wisconsin if marijuana was legalized. He said the state does draw a significant number of tourists and could win over out-of-state customers depending on the tax structure and the prices.

“A lot of people focus on what kind of revenue might come from some sort of recreational law, but I think the regulatory structure is just as important,” he said. “It’s where all of the other kinds of aspects of legalization carry with them some really important changes to the state.”

That could include allowing communities to opt out of allowing marijuana sales like Michigan’s system or letting municipalities impose a local sales tax like in Illinois. A state policy could also lead to providing resources to law enforcement to recognize drivers under the influence or creating public health messaging to encourage responsible use. Brown said Wisconsin would have the advantage of being able to learn from the systems in Michigan and Illinois if the state moved toward legalization.

He said statewide regulations would also provide a more cohesive response across municipalities. Cities like Eau Claire and Oshkosh and Milwaukee County have eased restrictions on possession of marijuana and Madison even allows individuals to carry up to 28 grams.

“Things are very different, you know, in places that are located just a couple of minutes from each other,” he said. “And I don’t think that that’s something that should be discounted. I think that it can make for a really kind of confusing policy mix for individuals.”

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