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Viewpoint: Why I voted against the cannabis referendum

Last week the St. Croix County Board voted to table the cannabis legalization advisory referendum indefinitely. I supported that result and was pleased that the eight members who agreed with me were not only from the conservative coalition on the board, but included three members who more regularly vote with the liberal wing.

My decision to table the referendum was based upon many factors.

Rules matter.

The referendum was proposed by a committee with no jurisdiction under our bylaws to address this issue—the Administration Committee. Either the Health & Human Services Committee or the Public Protection & Judiciary Committee might have taken this up—but neither chose to do so. In fact, they both voted overwhelmingly not to bring it forward. The board member who proposed the referendum also sits on the Health & Human Services Committee, but chose not to raise the issue before it. Perhaps because only 2 of its 10 members supported bringing this referendum to voters in November.

The county has no authority to legalize cannabis

The St. Croix County Board has no authority to legalize cannabis. The state and federal government have exercised jurisdiction in this area—and both have made various aspects of these plants (marijuana and hemp) legal, illegal and regulated. We have a very full plate of issues to consider in the coming months, not the least of which is a looming operating budget crisis and administration proposals for more borrowing to fund a long list of capital projects.

County referenda should address county issues

The St. Croix County Board has the authority to offer a non-binding referendum to its voters on virtually any issue it chooses. That said, I believe the use of the county referendum power should be limited to county issues. Last spring, the County Board presented a referendum on whether the US Constitution should be amended to overturn a decision of the US Supreme Court on campaign finance. I opposed that use of the county referendum authority, just as I oppose the proposed cannabis referendum.

The County Board borrowed $65 million without asking voters

While on the subject of county referenda, it should be noted that over the past four years the County Board approved borrowing $65 million for various projects, including the new nursing home and highway department facilities. Some board members suggested that this very significant spending should be put to the voters for their approval, but most of the same board members now supporting the cannabis referendum opposed that vote. In my view, borrowing money for large capital projects is the kind of issue that county referenda should address.

Cannabis legalization proponents should contact legislators

St. Croix County is fortunate to be represented by eight state legislators—five representatives and three state senators. If change is what you want, they are the ones to convince. Only the Wisconsin state legislature and governor can actually legalize tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical in some forms of cannabis (marijuana, but not hemp). See Wis. Stat. 961.41. I would be interested to hear their views on cannabis issues (including legalization of THC for medical and recreational purposes) and encourage those who testified before the St. Croix County Board to redirect their information and opinions to them.

Wisconsin public opinion on marijuana legalization is not in doubt

Wisconsin public opinion in on legalizing marijuana is not in dispute. A poll from the Marquette Law School in 2016 put the pro-legalization percentage at 59 percent, up from 46 percent in 2014. If proponents of the cannabis referendum believe public opinion polls will move legislators, they already have all the ammunition they need—in a statewide poll no less. Referenda in a handful of the 72 Wisconsin counties this fall will not add to that argument. I happen to believe that the medical use of cannabis products in a regulated way is good public policy. I also believe that if general legalization garners 59 percent approval in Wisconsin, the percentage supporting medical use would undoubtedly be much higher. In other words, an opinion poll of voters in St. Croix County is a non-event.

Referendum proponents failed to reveal that one of the primary medical uses for cannabis—CBD oil—is already legal in Wisconsin and available in St. Croix County

That said, I presumed those presenting information at the various county board and committee meetings would provide us with a fair explanation of the merits of the medical use of cannabis, as it was the predominate argument in favor of the referendum. That did not happen. We were told that the medical use of cannabis was essentially forbidden in Wisconsin. I recall one speaker distinguishing the two medically beneficial components of cannabis—THC and CBD oil. While essentially passing over THC as the more widely known chemical that provides the "high," her primary plea was for legalization of CBD oil. She said it could have offered much needed relief to her mother, her mother's friend and another acquaintance who had to leave the state—presumably to get access to CBD oil.

Here is the problem. On May 10, 2018—almost three months before last Tuesday's County Board meeting—Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel announced that the production and sale of CBD oil from hemp, which contains little or no THC, is perfectly legal. No doctor's prescription is necessary. In fact, CBD oil products were available at the Village Pharmacy in Baldwin at the very moment folks were testifying on Tuesday to the St. Croix County Board that we needed to authorize the cannabis referendum to provide access to CBD oil. Note that the City of New Richmond banned all over-the-counter CBD oil last May.

The referendum language is fatally flawed, given the state of the law on CBD oil in Wisconsin

The proposed referendum asks, in part:

"Should cannabis: (b) Be legal for medical purposes only and available only by prescription through a medical dispensary?"

However, CBD oil is already legal in Wisconsin and requires no prescription through a medical dispensary, except in New Richmond. If this referendum were to become law, it would severely limit the availability of CBD oil to Wisconsinites. This is certainly not the result advocated by referendum proponents at our public hearings.

So it seems, we truly did need to investigate further before authorizing this referendum.

For all these reasons, I believe that tabling the resolution or simply voting it down was the right decision. I recognize that some folks may disagree with me and I am grateful to all those who have communicated their views.