Editorial | Legalize it | Editorial

It was the spring of 1976 when Jamaican reggae singer Peter Tosh recorded “Legalize It,” a cult classic with a message that rings as true today as it did almost 50 years ago. A call for doing away with marijuana prohibition, the lyrics declared:

Legalize it

Don’t criticize it

Legalize it,

And I will advertise it

Over the ensuing decade, Tosh’s plea (and that of millions of others) for an end to a drug war that was always doomed to fail has been answered by countries around the world and 23 American states. Travel across the U.S. from Massachusetts to California and you will see advertising for marijuana dispensaries that do a booming business that fill state treasuries with billions of dollars in tax revenues.

This is not just a coastal phenomenon. With the notable exception of Wisconsin, Midwestern states have jumped to legalize the possession, use and regulated sales of cannabis.

Wisconsin’s neighbor to the south, Illinois, has legalized marijuana.

Wisconsin’s neighbor to the north and east, Michigan, has legalized marijuana.

And on Saturday the state legislature in Wisconsin’s neighbor to the west, Minnesota, sent a legalization bill to the desk of Democratic Gov. Tim Walz.

Walz has pledged to sign the measure, which permits the possession of up to two pounds of marijuana by adults age 21 and older. As soon as Aug. 1, Minnesotans will be allowed to cultivate up to eight cannabis plants on their property, while a new Office of Cannabis Management will over the next year devise rules for the regulated sales of recreational marijuana.

That means that Minnesota will in short order be reaping the financial benefits of legalized marijuana, in accordance with legislation that sets a 10% tax rate on sales of recreational cannabis products. Twenty percent of the collected revenue will go to the state’s cities and counties, which will all have a role in the licensing of cannabis companies.

The legislation is a model plan, which also includes provisions for expunging the criminal records of Minnesotans with past convictions for misdemeanor marijuana offenses and for reviewing the records of those with convictions for more serious offenses. In addition, it includes social-equity components that, according to Forbes magazine, are “designed to address harms caused by nearly a century of prohibition and ensure participation in the newly legal cannabis industry by individuals convicted of marijuana-related offenses or their family members.”

According to Forbes, “The legislation also grants social equity status to military veterans or active service members who were denied honorable status because of a cannabis offense, farmers from underrepresented communities and residents of areas that ‘experienced a disproportionately large amount of cannabis enforcement.’”

That’s a recognition of the fact that “The war on drugs has had devastating harmful effects on our communities,” says Minnesota state Sen. Lindsey Port, a member of the state’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party who authored the legislation. 

The devastation that Minnesota communities experienced has also been experienced by Wisconsin communities.

So why is Wisconsin the outlier when it comes to legalization?

That’s a question that state Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard, D-Madison, has been asking for years. The Legislature’s most outspoken and consistent advocate for legalization, Agard says: “Wisconsin is ready for legal cannabis. Communities most affected by over-enforced and outdated drug policies are ready. Our farmers are ready. Let’s do this together — let’s legalize cannabis.”

Agard points to polling that shows overwhelming enthusiasm for ending marijuana prohibition. According to a 2019 Marquette University Law School poll, 83% of Wisconsinites favor legalizing medical marijuana. A 2022, Marquette poll found that 61% of Wisconsinites — including majorities of both Democrats and Republicans — want to see legalization of recreational use of marijuana.

Gov. Tony Evers agrees. He’s a longtime advocate for ending prohibition who recently included a legalization plan in his state budget proposal. When he was preparing the budget, however, Evers noted the roadblock that remains.

“Even though the people of Wisconsin by huge numbers in polling support recreational marijuana in the state of Wisconsin,” the governor said last year, “I just don’t know if the Republicans are there yet.”

They’re not.

With a single vote on May 2, the Legislature’s Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee rejected more than 500 proposals Evers had included in the budget — including the governor’s legalization proposal.

Calling the Republican move “foolish and a wasted opportunity,” a frustrated Evers explained, “These aren’t fringe ideas, controversial concepts, or Republican or Democratic priorities — they’re about doing the right thing.”

That’s certainly the case with legalization of marijuana.

It’s always been the right thing to do, and it’s been a mainstream idea at least since Peter Tosh told us to “legalize it.”

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