Wisconsin GOP softening on medical marijuana, but not Scott Walker

Cara Lombardo, AP writer

The Republican-controlled Wisconsin legislature seems poised to legalize a marijuana extract used to treat seizures. With that shift, even former Republican opponents are beginning the conversation about approving medical marijuana.

Gov. Scott Walker and Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald maintain there’s no way that’s going to happen.

But Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said he’s considering it, which is surprising after years of GOP opposition to legalizing any form of marijuana. He and other Republicans are starting to soften their opposition in part because marijuana is now viewed as a less harmful alternative to prescribing addictive opiates as painkillers.

“If you get a prescription to use an opiate or you get a prescription to use marijuana, to me I think that’s the same thing,” Vos said. “I would be open to that.”

Marijuana extract now the focus

Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, plans to sponsor a bill making it legal to possess cannabidiol — or CBD — oil, a medicinal marijuana extract. He also said he’d consider legalizing medical marijuana with the right limitations, but not now.

CBD oil contains little or no tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and therefore doesn’t produce a high in users.

Wanggaard plans to introduce his bill this month. A similar bill passed by the Assembly last session was killed by GOP senators — the same group that has been a hindrance to strengthening drunken driving laws (see page 4). Marijuana advocates point to the mighty financial resources the Tavern League Association of Wisconsin has to influence legislators — money the advocates can’t begin to match.

But Wanggaard is confident his measure will have enough support this time around, according to a statement issued by his spokesman Scott Kelly.

Legalizing medicinal pot?

The opposition from Walker and Fitzgerald will block action on medical marijuana in the state any time soon. But Vos’s openness to it and Wanggaard’s support gives hope to proponents, such as Democratic Rep. Melissa Sargent, of Madison.

“We’re acknowledging in this building that’s pretty hyper-partisan that there are some benefits to this plant,” Sargent said. She said many of the eight states that fully legalized marijuana did so gradually by recognizing marijuana’s medicinal applications first.

A 2016 University of Michigan study found patients using medical marijuana to treat chronic pain reported a 64 percent reduction in their use of opioid painkillers.

A 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found states with medical marijuana laws saw a 25 percent reduction in opioid overdose deaths. But the study’s authors cautioned against drawing conclusions without further research.

Sargent said policymakers are lagging public opinion in Wisconsin. A Marquette Law School poll conducted last June found 59 percent of registered voters in Wisconsin believe marijuana should be “fully legalized and treated like alcohol.” The poll did not ask specifically about medical uses of the drug.

“We are sent here by our constituents to be their voice,” Sargent said.

Still, those holding out hope for medical marijuana will have to keep waiting.

“I have no idea where the caucus would be but I’m certainly not there personally,” said Fitzgerald, the Republican Senate leader. “I wouldn’t support it right now.”

Treating seizures

One immediate request coming from some families — the right to possess CBD oil to treat seizures — could be answered soon by the Wanggaard bill.

Eleven-year-old Jacob Schultz of Waukesha was diagnosed with epilepsy shortly after he was born. He and his parents have spent the last decade restricting his diet and cycling through prescription drugs in search of one that controls his seizures. His mother, Jennifer Schultz, believes the oil could give him powerful relief, but she can’t legally possess it.

“It is in within reach, so let’s get there already,” Jennifer said.

The groundwork for the medicinal use of CBD oil in Wisconsin was laid in 2014 when lawmakers passed legislation known as Lydia’s Law, which made it legal to possess CBD oil when dispensed by a doctor as part of a medical trial.

But no medical trials have taken place in Wisconsin, so families cannot legally possess the substance.

“There were so many families that were ecstatic after Lydia’s Law passed,” Jennifer Schultz said. “But then to find out that it could not effectively help anyone yet was a huge blow.”

Louis Weisberg contributed to this story.

See also:

9 states to vote on expanding legal access to marijuana

Pot and profit: Business owners replace idealists in marijuana movement

Wisconsin Republican legislative leaders disagree on medical marijuana