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Despite more support for the legislation than ever before among Wisconsin lawmakers, an ongoing effort to legalize marijuana for medical use in the state appears to be headed nowhere.

Even with unprecedented public support and backing from more members of the Legislature than at any time in history, sponsors admit the bill is likely to fail again.

So far, 21 states have legalized and established a system to regulate marijuana for medical purposes. In Wisconsin, a version of the bill failed in 2009 after a dramatic public showdown between state Sens. Leah Vukmir and Jon Erpenbach, and another version died in committee in 2012.

Erpenbach, D-Middleton, is the leading sponsor of the Jacki Rickert Medical Marijuana Act. The senator, whose district includes Baraboo and much of eastern Sauk County, said he found it disappointing that the bill has failed to advance under both Democratic and Republican leadership in the Legislature.

He said he remains dubious about the bill’s chances of success in the immediate future, but added public perception about the legislation is changing. He pointed to a Fox News poll taken in May that showed 85 percent of Americans support medical marijuana laws.

“The public is far ahead of lawmakers on this issue,” he said.

Staunch opposition

Vukmir’s opposition to the bill is central to supporters’ pessimism about its chances. As chair of the Senate Health Committee, it is unlikely she will allow it to come up for a vote.

“I’ve opposed it in the past and I will oppose it again.” Sen. Vukmir has said, stating that she doesn’t believe marijuana has any medicinal value. The last time the bill received a hearing was in December 2009, which resulted in a dramatic public showdown between Vukmir and Erpenbach. Vukmir said she believed the bill was intended to pave the way for legalization of marijuana for recreational uses, in addition to medical uses. Two states have moved forward with recreational legalization, including Washington and Colorado. Vukmir’s office did not return calls seeking comment for this article.

Despite the obstacles, Rep. Chris Danou, D-Trempeleau, said he supports the bill and will fight on behalf of its namesake.

“Chances of it passing are honestly pretty slim, but Jacki Rickert is my constituent and I will do everything I possibly can for her,” he said.

Rickert is the founder and executive director of Is My Medicine Legal Yet? and a long-time medical marijuana patient and advocate. She says marijuana helped her put on weight when she dropped to only 68 pounds, and helps relieve pain and symptoms of advanced reflex sympathetic dystrophy and a rare genetic disease that attacks her body’s connective tissue called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. Jacki has been involved in every Wisconsin medical marijuana bill introduced since the mid-1990s and since 2007, state legislation has carried her name — The Jacki Rickert Medical Marijuana Act, now known as the Jacki Rickert Medical Cannabis Act.

Inconclusive research

Critics contend there are concerns about the use of the drug that require more thorough research. The FDA doesn’t approve of smoking anything as a medicine because the dosage can’t be controlled and inhaling smoke exposes the lungs to hazardous carcinogens.

In 2012, the Wisconsin Medical Society changed its position of actively opposing medical marijuana to match the view of the American Medical Society, in which the groups ask the National Institute of Health, the DEA and the FDA to reclassify the plant and allow studies to be conducted on medical marijuana and for the government to potentially fund. Additionally, the medical organizations state that it should not be a crime for patients and their doctors to discuss marijuana as an alternative treatment plan. The resolution passed with little opposition at the state level. However, the Wisconsin Medical Society stresses its position should not be viewed as an endorsement of the use of cannabis.

Rep. Fred Clark, D-Baraboo, who is a sponsor of the bill in the Assembly, says he believes it is a positive sign that marijuana is being discussed more often in the medical community, and that legislators from both parties have begun to realize that a patient with a chronic condition using marijuana is a reasonable thing to consider.

“There are some conditions that marijuana is actually a better treatment for instead of narcotic painkillers,” Clark said. “If we can help people get those medical needs, I think it’s common sense.”

Evolving views

Rep. Ed Brooks, R-Reedsburg, said he understands attitudes are changing about marijuana and he is sympathetic to patients, but remains concerned about a lack of medical consensus on the issue. He added the drug remains illegal at the federal level and said a decision by the state to allow its citizens to violate federal law should not be taken lightly. Brooks said he has an open mind, but that Wisconsin should not be in a hurry to move forward with marijuana legislation.

In August, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced a policy shift at the federal level in which he stated the Department of Justice would not challenge state laws legalizing marijuana use for medical or recreational purposes and instead would focus on keeping the drug out of the hands of minors and preventing its spread to states where the drug remained outlawed. He also announced the federal government would not seek to enforce prohibitions on operations growing or selling marijuana in states where it has been legalized, so long as those operations complied with local laws. Despite the change, cannabis remains a Schedule I controlled substance at the federal level, a category that includes heroin, methamphetamines and other drugs.

Not everyone is convinced.

Sen. Ted Kanavas, R-Brookfield, said in a 2009 marijuana debate with Erpenbach that marijuana is a drug of abuse that creates dependencies and other long-term problems. He says Republicans empathize with struggling patients but said his stance was about creating policies that fit Wisconsin’s values and culture. “The bill won’t pass if people find out what it really does,” he correctly predicted at the time.

Critics also have expressed concern that a change in the law would allow dispensaries to pop up on every corner like in California and Kanavas said he doesn’t want the government to get involved in the marijuana business.

Kanavas said even regulating the drug for medical purposes could send a message that its use is acceptable, and may lead to more recreational use.

“It’s a gateway drug,” he said.

Wisconsin has some of the harshest penalties for marijuana possession in the Midwest. A second pot possession offense is an automatic felony; in contrast it takes four drunken driving offenses to constitute a felony. Those laws recently were strengthened through a bill approved by the state Legislature that allows municipal courts to prosecute marijuana possession cases that were not pursued by the local district attorney’s office. In some Wisconsin counties, district attorneys have declined to prosecute marijuana possession cases as misdemeanor crimes, citing backlogs of cases and an overbooked criminal justice system.

Moral dilemma

Despite the move to increase criminal prosecutions for marijuana possession, the reality of those with severe medical conditions has led others to push forward with the effort to legalize marijuana for those who suffer from chronic conditions.

Sen. John Lehman, D-Racine, said his support for the legislation came from conversations with cancer patients who said the drug helped relieve feelings of nausea experienced during cancer.

Lehman said some of those he spoke with were uncomfortable violating state and federal laws when using marijuana, but they felt desperate for relief from nausea.

Rep. Terese Berceau, D-Madison, a two-time cancer survivor, and Rep. Eric Genrich, D-Green Bay, who recently lost his mother-in-law to brain cancer, support the bill for similar reasons.

“It would have been nice to have as an option for pain relief,” Genrich said, adding that he does not understand why pain medications such as morphine that can have side effects and the potential for addiction or an overdose are readily available but medical marijuana is not.

Erpenbach said the cause gained his support when he first met Gary Storck. Storck first used medical marijuana 41 years ago to relieve glaucoma. At his appointment that day his doctor found his ocular pressure to be as close to normal as it had ever been. Storck is one of the driving forces behind Wisconsin’s continued medical marijuana effort as co-founder of Is My Medicine Legal Yet? and former president of the Wisconsin and Madison National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws groups.

Storck said the transformation of the issue into one of partisanship has been “mystifying.”

He pointed to past efforts to pass medical marijuana legislation from former Republican state legislators Greg Underheim of Oshkosh and Rick Skindrud of Mt. Horeb as evidence that the issue had not always been a partisan matter. In 2003, as chair of the Assembly Health Committee, Underheim introduced a cannabis bill and did so and again in 2005. In 2000 and 2001 Skindrud held informational hearings on medical cannabis.

“It is my hope that if we continue to bring up the issue we will move the opinions of Wisconsin legislators blocking the proposal and have success for seriously-ill patients seeking relief in our state,” he said.

What’s in the bill?

In its current form, the bill would prohibit arrest and prosecution for marijuana of a patient who has a valid registry ID card or is an approved caregiver unless they have too much pot — 12 live plants or 3 ounces of cannabis — operate a motor vehicle, or smoke around schools, parks, work, or public transit.

Prospective patients would submit a signed application with a medical written certification and a fee of no more than $150. The Department of Health and Human Services would not be allowed to disclose any patient information unless it’s to validate a registry card to law enforcement. Visitors to Wisconsin with valid cards in their home jurisdiction would be allowed to use medical marijuana.

Anyone could petition DHS to add a medical condition or treatment to qualify someone as a medical marijuana patient. DHS would hold a public hearing on the petition and make its decision within 180 days, which would then be subject to judicial review.

“Compassion centers” would dispense the marijuana provided they are non-profit organizations, pay an annual fee of $5,000, an application fee of $250, are not located within 500 feet of a school, and don’t possess or distribute too much pot.

Current Wisconsin Chapter NORML President Nate Petreman doesn’t expect the medical marijuana industry to generate much economic activity due in part to the fact that the medicine would be sold tax-free and dispensaries are required to be non-profit organizations.

“The savings will be with law enforcement and judicial costs, since there will be no need to charge card-holding patients,” Petreman said. “Michigan has shown a small surplus from this.”

Officials from the State Public Defender’s Office and Wisconsin Department of Administration have said they do not believe the court system caseload would increase if the bill passed. Both agencies also said they could not determine whether the bill would result in any savings.