Breaking down the debates for marijuana legalization in Wisconsin

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WEAU) -- More than 29 states plus Washington D.C. have legalized marijuana for either recreational or medical purposes, including our neighbors to the east, west and south.

It is a topic that has become a focus for states around the country, including right here in Wisconsin.

"When I meet with legislators from around the country this is often something that we talk about," said Rep. Jill Billings, D-La Crosse. "How is medical marijuana working in other states, how is recreational marijuana working in other states."

But the topic of marijuana has been a complicated one for the state legislature.

Numerous bills have been brought to the state senate and assembly, and none have gained much traction.

Now more than half the state will get to give their input on the issue.

In 16 counties and two cities in Wisconsin, an advisory referendum will appear on the November ballot asking about the legalization of marijuana.

In ten of those counties, and the city of Waukesha, the question will read:

"Should cannabis be legalized in Wisconsin for medical purposes, and regulated in the same manner as other prescription drugs?"

"I think one of the things you have to look at when you look at the effects of any kind of drug are, is this an addictive drug. And certainly marijuana meets all the criteria for an addictive drug," said Mayo Clinic Health System Franciscan Healthcare Dr. Scott Marshall.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, marijuana can effect brain development and can lead to an increased risk of stroke and heart disease, among other health risks.

"There have been studies that show that the reward anticipation response in patients who use marijuana is blunted," said Marshall.

He says statistically those people are more likely to be unemployed and on welfare.

But there has not been a lot of research done on the long term effects of marijuana.

"The schedule one designation has hampered research in terms of the medicinal effects of marijuana," said Marshall.

That has made some legislators weary on the issue, according to Billings.

"We want to make sure that people know what they're getting and know scientifically what it really will do for them. So for some legislators that's a sticking point," said Billings.

But there are parts of the marijuana plant that have been proven to be medically beneficial, such as CBD.

"Cannabidiol doesn't get you high, but it's the substance that has been used and purified for use in pharmaceutical grade, recently FDA approved, for use in patients with certain intractable seizure disorders," said Marshall.

CBD oil become legal in Wisconsin in April 2017.

"A common path for other states is to open the door with CBD oil and then medical marijuana and then recreational marijuana," said Billings.

In four counties, including La Crosse, the advisory referendum will ask about recreational marijuana.

Asking:

"Should the State of Wisconsin legalize the use of marijuana by adults 21 years or older, to be taxed and regulated in the same manner that alcohol is regulated in the State of Wisconsin, with proceeds from the taxes used for education, healthcare and infrastructure?"

A step law enforcement says might be too far, too soon.

"I've spoken personally with investigators and officials in Colorado for example, and what they're seeing in Colorado is not the panacea of wonderful things coming from legalization of marijuana," said West Central MEG Unit Investigative Coordinator Tom Johnson.

Johnson has been dealing with drugs in Western Wisconsin for decades and knows the impact marijuana can have.

"They will always include marijuana as one of their starting points. So from a personal standpoint that tells me it's a gateway," said Johnson.

According to the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, crime in Colorado is up since full legalization and the tax revenue generated in minimal.

"Just because a state legalizes their marijuana, it's certainly not going to say that these (Drug Trafficking Organizations) or cartels are going to say 'oh we'll stop doing it in these states' because that's not going to happen," said Johnson.

But full legalization does have support from some state representatives, who cite full legalization as an economic opportunity and a way to fight to fight the ongoing opioid crisis.

In Eau Claire County, voters will have three options.

Full legalization, legalize medical marijuana or remain illegal.

The advisory referendums do not have any binding affect on the legislature.

But will give legislators a good idea of public opinion on the issue.

A newly released Marquette Law Poll shows that 61 percent support full legalization in Wisconsin.

"I think it's going to be a slow process for sure. But I also think it is good to have another took to gauge how people feel in Wisconsin about this issue," said Billings.

The general election is Nov. 6.