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Sauk County Board approves advisory referendum on medical marijuana

Merrimac resident Megan Lowe encourages Sauk County Board members to approve an advisory referendum on medical marijuana Tuesday night. She says it will help her 9-year-old daughter, Norah, who suffers from Rett syndrome.

Sauk County voters will have an opportunity in November to tell state lawmakers whether they support the legalization of marijuana for medicinal use.

On Tuesday night, the Sauk County Board voted 21-4, with five supervisors abstaining, to authorize an advisory referendum on medical marijuana this fall. That makes Sauk County the fourth in Wisconsin to approve a ballot question involving medical cannabis in the upcoming general election.

Several supervisors who opposed the initiative or abstained from the vote said they generally oppose referendums on matters outside the county’s control. Supporters said it makes sense to give voters a chance to speak directly to Wisconsin lawmakers about a medical restriction that has been eliminated in 30 other states and Washington, D.C.

Language changed

Before approving the referendum, the board voted 28-1, with one abstention, to support a language change proposed by Supervisor John Deitrich of Reedsburg. He is one of the four supervisors who later voted against the proposal.

Deitrich said it is against federal law for doctors to prescribe medical marijuana, and suggested the word “prescription” be changed to “recommendation.”

With Deitrich’s change, the referendum will appear on Sauk County ballots as follows: “Should the State of Wisconsin legalize medical marijuana so that people with debilitating medical conditions may access medical marijuana if they have a recommendation from a licensed Wisconsin physician?”

Supervisors accepted the change without legal guidance. After he was asked to weigh in, Sauk County Corporation Counsel Daniel Olson said he was not familiar with the issue Deitrich raised.

John Rather, who serves as chief legal counsel for the Wisconsin Medical Society, said in an email Wednesday that although doctors cannot legally “prescribe” marijuana, they don’t give patients a “recommendation” either. In states where medical cannabis is legal, he said, physicians provide patients a certification that allows them to possess the drug.

“The physician does not recommend marijuana,” Rather said, “she or he only certifies that the individual has a qualifying condition as defined by that state’s laws.”

After the new language was approved, Deitrich voted against the referendum, saying he opposes ballot initiatives on “non-county issues” and has concerns about the possession of medical marijuana in public housing.

Public support

Prior to the debate, the board heard from several Sauk County residents who said Wisconsin lawmakers’ resistance to medical marijuana has prevented them from living a better life.

Brett Nachtigal, a 10-year military veteran from Baraboo, told supervisors his service left him with a condition that causes nerve pain and high blood pressure, and likely will lead to a stroke or heart attack. Pain medication his doctors prescribed has not helped, he said, but marijuana he took while visiting Colorado did.

“I want to be around for my kids,” Nachtigal said. “So please, please pass this.”

Supervisors also heard from 9-year-old Merrimac resident Norah Lowe, who suffers from a rare neurological disorder called Rett syndrome. Lowe and her parents said medical marijuana helps control seizures and other Rett symptoms.

Josh Lowe encouraged supervisors who generally oppose referendums on issues outside the county’s control to abstain, rather than vote no.

Broader debate

Aside from the pros and cons of medical marijuana, Tuesday night’s debate centered on a broader discussion about what issues are appropriate for countywide advisory referendums.

In January, the board’s Executive and Legislative Committee rejected a proposed advisory referendum on partisan gerrymandering in the face of significant public support for the proposal. Those who opposed the measure said it would anger state lawmakers, and noted the board already had approved a resolution expressing support for nonpartisan redistricting reforms.

Three months later, the April election brought about a power shift on the board that resulted in the election of new leadership and a more progressive majority.

The gerrymandering referendum was quickly revived and approved, along with another ballot question involving the influence of money in politics. That has prompted pushback from conservatives who now are in the minority.

They argue it’s inappropriate for the board to authorize advisory referendums on matters outside the county’s control. However, since the board has now opened that door, they say, it would be unfair to reject ballot questions on other issues.

To make the case, Supervisor Tim McCumber of Merrimac has introduced advisory referendums on abortion, gun rights and the medical marijuana proposal that was passed Tuesday.

The argument has gained traction among some supervisors.

“I don’t know how I can vote for this referendum, then in all fairness vote against the others that are coming down the track,” freshman Supervisor Glenn Johnson of Reedsburg said during Tuesday’s debate.

The Wisconsin Counties Association supports the ability of a county to have an advisory referendum on any issue it deems appropriate. And most other Wisconsin county boards have authorized ballot questions on matters outside their control without opening the door to a never-ending stream of proposals.

For example, 54 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties authorized 2010 advisory referendums on whether lawmakers should pursue a constitutional amendment banning budget raids on the state’s transportation fund.

Sauk County Board Chairman Peter Vedro of Baraboo has previously said the threshold for non-county ballot questions should be issues involving “access to the ballot box.” During Tuesday night’s debate, Vedro said, reflection has led him to endorse a simpler threshold: majority rule.

The board’s Executive and Legislative Committee will decide whether the referendums in the pipeline get forwarded to the board, Vedro said. And if individual supervisors don’t agree with the committee’s decisions, he said, they can petition the full board.

“Elections matter,” Vedro said.

Supervisors Deitrich, Johnson, Marty Krueger of Reedsburg and Chuck Spencer of Baraboo voted against the marijuana referendum.

Supervisors Tom Kriegl of Baraboo, Craig Braunschweig of Reedsburg, Kevin Lins of Spring Green, Brian Peper of Loganville and Brandon Lohr of Prairie du Sac abstained from the vote.

Follow Tim Damos on Twitter @timdamos or contact him at 608-356-4808 ext. 238.

Baraboo News Republic reporter

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