To help combat the state’s growing opioid-addiction epidemic, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a law Aug. 28 allowing medical marijuana to be used as a painkiller.
But it’s extremely unlikely that Wisconsin will follow its southern neighbor and adopt a similar policy.
The Illinois law, which went immediately into effect, allows physicians to temporarily prescribe cannabis for pain relief.
Illinois legalized medical marijuana in 2013, but the new law will vastly expand the state’s cannabis program. Among other changes, it will ease the application process. For instance, it will no longer require fingerprinting or criminal background checks.
According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, 11,000 people in the state have died from opioid overdoses since 2008. In 2016, deaths caused by opioids were double those resulting from vehicular accidents.
Generating tax revenue
Marijuana Business Daily estimated that Illinois’ medical marijuana expansion could draw up to 365,000 new patients and generate an additional $425 million in revenue for the state. Medical benefits and increased revenue have prompted 30 states and the District of Columbia to legalize pot for medical and/or recreational purposes in recent years.
Wisconsin Democrats routinely propose legalizing medical marijuana here, but the Republicans in charge of state government continually refuse to consider it. Democrats have argued in part that legalization would provide the state funding to restore cuts in vital services such as road repair and education.
Scott Walker announced a $385 million budget surplus in February, much of which he gifted to taxpayers in a move that was widely seen as a political gimmick to shore up his re-election prospects in November. But Wisconsin’s Comprehensive Annual Fiscal Report showed the state ended its past fiscal year not with a surplus, but rather with a $1.6 billion deficit. The difference is that the CAF takes into account unpaid state liabilities, which are not included in Walker’s cash accounting method. Walker’s accounting has been compared to balancing a check book without deducting the checks that haven’t been cashed yet.
Still, Wisconsin Republicans are loathe to consider pot legalization of any form because their core constituents are social conservatives who tend to be older, more rural and more religious than the state as a whole.
State finally to get CBD oil
Republicans finally enacted a law permitting hemp cultivation earlier this year in order to help the state’s farmers, who have been struggling for survival since the collapse of milk and soybean prices. In fact, the western Wisconsin had the highest number of farm bankruptcies in the country last year.
The primary way that farmers profit from hemp is by extracting cannabidiol, an oil that’s proven beneficial for controlling pain, reducing seizures and alleviating symptoms associated with other medical conditions.
But Attorney General Brad Schimel tried to scuttle the program by prohibiting the extraction and sale of the oil, creating a panic among people farmers who were counting on hemp licenses to save their businesses. Schimel, who’s aligned politically with the evangelical faction of the Republican right, made the decision based on stories he said that he’d heard about children using CBD oil to get high. Chemically, however, the oil does not contain a sufficient quantity of THC, the compound that produces the euphoric high enjoyed by marijuana users, to produce a high.
Schimel quickly reversed his ban after being confronted forcefully by the state’s agricultural lobby.
Like Walker, Schimel is up for re-election this year.
Schimel: Hard on addicts, soft on drug producers
Wisconsin Republicans are unlikely to be influenced by Illinois’ decision to implement marijuana in the battle against opioids. Schimel has embraced what he calls a “regional prosecutor model” to address the epidemic. That relies primarily on more aggressive work by police and prosecutors to break up supply rings and punish users.
Schimel has refused to join other state attorneys general in a lawsuit targeting manufacturers of opioid pain medications. The suit holds drug manufacturers accountable for failing to inform doctors of the addiction risks associated with their products.
In the past, Schimel has been heavily criticized for wasting state resources in joining high-profile lawsuits in which his support is not needed. Critics say his reluctance to join in the opioid lawsuit is motivated by the large campaign donations he’s received from opioid manufacturers.
Schimel received the only contribution ever given by Purdue Pharmaceutical’s Political Action Committee to a state candidate or state office holder. Purdue produces Oxycontin, the powerful drug that experts say sparked the opioid epidemic.
In 2016, Wisconsin recorded 865 opioid-related deaths and thousands of overdoses. The state’s rate of deaths from opioids was 15.8 per 100,000 people. The national average is 13.3 deaths per 100,000.