Last year, just south of the Wisconsin border off exit one, the largest marijuana dispensary in the state of Illinois opened its doors for business. If it moved much closer — the Wisconsin-Illinois border is literally 1,000 feet away — it would be in Wisconsin, a state where marijuana is illegal.
“The dispensary is basically serving two states. You can go there on any given day and half the plates are from Wisconsin,” Mayor Ted Rehl told The News Station.
He runs South Beloit, Ill. — the city of roughly 8,000 people where Sunnyside dispensary is located. The border slices the city from its neighbor to the north, Beloit, Wis., which boasts a population of nearly five times that of South Beloit. Both are predominantly white, working-class communities.
South Beloit’s location 50 miles south of Madison and 50 miles southwest of Milwaukee — our largest city — makes it a prime location to draw customers across the border, as Wisconsin remains a pocket of prohibition in the Upper Midwest. Consequently, revenue is following Wisconsites across the border, and our state remains in the minority of those who have seen marijuana-related arrests decrease in the past decade, with arrests disproportionately impacting Wisconsin’s Black population.
Meanwhile, in the halls of the Capitol in Madison, lawmakers remain consistently inconsistent in their support for any form of legalization or decriminalization efforts. Democrats will introduce legislation one year, but fail to gain support from Republicans. A few years later, Republicans will introduce the same bill and fail to gain Democratic support.
“Both parties are absolutely to blame for prohibition in Wisconsin,” Jay Selthofner, co-director of the Wisconsin Cannabis Activist Network, told The News Station.
When it comes to sales, Sunnyside is generating over $1 million each month, according to Rehl, with sales tax revenues of about $25,000 monthly, or $300,000 a year, pouring into the town’s coffers. That amount has the potential to increase to a “conservative estimate” of $700,000 annually when a deal Rehl’s struck with the company to land the dispensary over other border towns expires in seven years. At that point, the city will receive an even higher percentage of the sales tax revenue.
Statewide, cannabis sales topped alcohol sales — $86 million compared to $72 million — during the first three months of the year, a first since sales began a little more than a year ago. In 2020, marijuana sales surpassed $1 billion in the Land of Lincoln.
“Sunnyside has required very little investment on our part for services. Police and fire have had no involvement,” Rehl said. “It has been a real revenue boost for us. The better they do, the better we do.”
On a recent Sunday, Milwaukee residents Faith Battaglia, 21, and Sarah Kenlay, 23, were among those crossing the border and contributing to the revenue stream. Neither had a reason to visit South Beloit prior to the dispensary moving to town. They now make the two-hour, round-trip drive from Milwaukee to South Beloit every other weekend.
They spend $590 per trip, or more than a grand each month. To purchase what they need, Battagila budgets and spends $180, while Kenley spends $410. A bulk of their money is spent on edible gummies to calm their anxiety and help them sleep.
It’s not cheap, Battaglia said, but she’s willing to pay more to purchase cannabis in a safe, clean environment.
“People are putting themselves at risk to buy it in Wisconsin,” Battaglia said. “It would be better to just legalize it and have a safe place like this for people to go.”
A report released by the American Civil Liberties Union in April of 2020 found more than 20,900 marijuana arrests were made in 2018, the majority for possession. This accounted for 57% of all drug arrests in Wisconsin, with Black men and women 4.2 times more likely than white people to be arrested for possession.
These findings ranked Wisconsin 14th nationally for racial disparities in arrests for marijuana possession. Our state was also one of only 17 where arrests for possession increased from 2010 to 2018, according to the study.
Michigan legalized medical marijuana in 2008. Michigan and Minnesota have since followed suit, legalizing medicinal, recreational or both. Meanwhile, Illinois and Minnesota legalized medical marijuana in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Michigan legalized recreational marijuana in 2018, with Illinois following its lead in 2019. A measure to do the same in Minnesota passed the state House but was recently voted down in the Senate.
In 2009, a year after Michigan legalized medicinal marijuana, Wisconsin held its first and only public hearing on a bill sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Jon Erpenbach and progressive Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan (at the time a state representative) to follow their neighboring state’s lead and legalize medical cannabis.
Testimony, largely in favor of the bill, lasted more than 10 hours. It included testimony from Jacki Rickert, for whom the bill was named. Rickert suffered from Ehlers-Danlo syndrome, a painful disease that breaks down the connective tissue of her bones. This causes overly flexible joints that are prone to dislocation and elastic skin that easily bruises. Rickert used marijuana for two decades to treat her pain and attempt to restore her appetite, although never legally in Wisconsin.
The bill died in a committee controlled by Democrats, which Erpenbach chaired. The Medical Society of Wisconsin opposed the bill, a reason cited as to why the legislation failed at the time.
Rickert died in 2017, the day after Christmas.
Erpenbach is still an advocate for medicinal marijuana legalization, but he is no longer in the majority and lacks Republican support to pass legislation.
Talk to other activists, advocates and party leaders from both sides of the political aisle, and a common theme becomes undeniable: For varying reasons, the political will to legalize medical or recreational marijuana is lacking among Wisconsin’s legislative leaders. The most leaders said they could agree to is decriminalizing cannabis, something already happening in a patchwork of cities and counties across the state. This includes Rock County, the Wisconsin county just north of Sunnyside.
“Full legalization is a nonstarter,” Wisconsin state Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley — a Democrat — told The News Station. “The Democratic caucus is not in favor of that.”
For a third year in a row, a bill to decriminalize marijuana has been introduced by Republicans. It has bipartisan support in the Wisconsin Assembly but not the Senate.
Even if Wisconsin legalized cannabis, Bewley said, it would still be a controlled substance, which concerns her.
“We don’t do a good job controlling the substances that are legal now,” Bewley said, citing the overuse of alcohol and prescription drugs. “If we didn’t have populations that are so horribly under-resourced, experiencing generational poverty, it would be different. I don’t think we are ready for it.”
Democratic state Sen. Melissa Agard disagrees and has introduced legislation to legalize recreational marijuana each of the last four legislative sessions.
Agard said common reasons she hears from other Wisconsin lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle for not backing her bill include the federal classification of marijuana, opposition from the law enforcement community and the belief marijuana is a gateway drug.
Lacking the support of his own party and state Republican leaders, Wisconsin’s Democratic Gov. Tony Evers included the legalization of recreational marijuana in his state budget proposal. He proposed using the estimated $165 million in tax revenue for a number of programs, including upgrading rural schools.
In a drastic move, highlighting the pervasive gridlock between the GOP-controlled legislature and our governor, the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee slashed nearly 400 items from Evers’ budget during its May 6 meeting. His proposal to legalize marijuana was among the cuts.
“This is a booming industry in Wisconsin, but it is a black market, underground industry,” Agard said. “Anyone that does not realize there are millions of dollars exchanging hands is not seeing the reality. Just look at how many people are driving down to South Beloit. Soon they’ll be driving to the UP (Michigan’s upper peninsula).”
With Republicans striking legalization from Evers’ budget proposal, Agard plans to once again introduce a stand-alone bill later this spring or summer. With scheduled floor sessions ending in late June, and party leaders not on board, the odds are slim the legislation will gain traction.
A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu told The News Station the Senate lacks the necessary 17 votes to legalize recreational or medical marijuana. LeMahieu has said it’s the federal government’s job to first declassify marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance under the Controlled Substances Act before he would feel comfortable voting to legalize it.
“Every day I’m reading about another bill passing in another state,” Agard told The News Station. “The people of Wisconsin don’t care which party gets this done. They just want it to pass.”
A whopping 83% of Wisconsin voters support legalizing medical marijuana, while 59% of Wisconsin voters support recreational marijuana legalization, according to a 2019 poll by Marquette University Law School.
Illinois was the first state to legalize marijuana through a bill being passed by its legislature and signed into law by the governor. Other states have followed suit. Others, like Michigan, legalized recreational marijuana through a binding ballot initiative, said Karen O’Keefe, policy director with the Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit that advocates for marijuana legalization. That is not an option in Wisconsin, where all ballot initiatives are non-binding.
“If it was an option, you would probably have already legalized marijuana,” O’Keefe told The News Station.
To her point, voters in 16 Wisconsin counties and two cities supported ballot questions about the legalized use of marijuana — 12 of which specifically related to legalizing medical marijuana — during the 2018 election cycle.
“It’s really a slap in the face to voters,” O’Keefe said. “Even in Louisiana, which I would think is way more conservative than Wisconsin, lawmakers had a bill and were having a floor debate on the issue. Wisconsin is not.”
The Marijuana Policy Project picks six to 10 states each year to focus its legalization efforts. Wisconsin has yet to be prioritized in that way, she said.
“Our main reason right now is the leadership in the Senate and Assembly have said they don’t have enough votes,” O’Keefe said. “There are better short-term prospects for us to focus on.”
Like O’Keefe, Selthofner — with the Wisconsin Cannabis Activist Network — was part of the effort to legalize marijuana in Michigan. A few years ago, Selthofner uprooted and moved to join the Michiganders scuffing the pavement while collecting signatures to get the question on the ballot. The 2018 effort that ended with America getting its 10th state where marijuana’s locally as legal as cracking a beer.
Now back on his hemp farm in rural Green Lake County, Selthofner said powerful lobbying groups like big pharma, big tobacco and the Tavern League of Wisconsin (a 5,000-member group that recently pushed legislation allowing alcoholic “drinks to go” through the legislature and successfully sued to overturn the state’s COVID-related, indoor capacity limits for bars and restaurants) are not to blame for legalization efforts failing to move forward in Wisconsin.
“It’s personal biases and just downright uneducated assholes,” Selthofner said. “That’s really what it comes down to.”
Legalizing recreational marijuana is years away, Selthofner said. He sees decriminalization happening first in Wisconsin, followed by the legalization of medicinal marijuana.
For Wisconsin residents like Kenlay and Battaglia — who both point to our state’s perennial ranking as a heavy-drinking state — public safety and health concerns are reason enough for change.
“I think Wisconsin is behind the ball on this one,” Kenlay — from inside her car in the Sunnyside parking lot, shortly before driving home to Milwaukee — told The News Station. “At this point, I think marijuana is helping more people than it is hurting. That’s not the case with alcohol, especially in Wisconsin.”