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360: Digging into whether legalizing marijuana is a good plan for Wisconsin

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Posted at 3:55 PM, Feb 27, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-27 19:54:23-05

The first step toward legalizing medical marijuana in Wisconsin, and decriminalizing possession of the drug, will be included in Gov. Tony Evers' first state budget proposal Thursday. But his plan will have trouble getting through the Republican-controlled Legislature.

In Wisconsin, there were referendums in two cities and 16 counties in November, asking voters to weigh in on medical marijuana. Election results revealed overwhelming support for legalization. But it remains a contentious issue.

"The drive to legalize marijuana for medical use is strictly driven by politics," said Republican state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo. "There is no scientific evidence proving it works."

But state Democrats believe those naysayers are violating democracy.

"How long are legislative leaders in Madison going to ignore the will of the people?" asked Lieutenant Gov. Mandela Barnes. "That's the question. People across the state of Wisconsin showed they support legalization."

Just as the opinions of lawmakers vary, public perception also appears mixed. Medical marijuana legalization is by far the biggest "talker" on the TODAY'S TMJ4 Facebook page now. While many express support for it, others share concerns.

To hear all sides, let's go in "360." It's a new segment we're doing to explore multiple sides of the topics that matter most to Wisconsinites, bringing in different perspectives so you can make up your own mind about the issues.

We'll talk to lawmakers, a doctor, lawyer and veteran. Plus, two parents who've been impacted by marijuana when it comes to their children.
"Medical marijuana helped my son," said Matt Wetzel. "Simple as that."

Wetzel's son, Jameson, started having seizures as a baby. Traditional treatments didn't work. Wetzel saw a report on medical marijuana and drove his family to Colorado to try it.

"It was illegal here, so we had to go there," Wetzel said. "We ended up staying for a while. We took the chance and it was actually one of the best decisions of our lives."

"Medical marijuana helped my son. Simple as that." — Matt Wetzel

Wetzel says Jameson showed huge improvements after only a few doses.

"Within a couple days he had his last seizure. He's now 7 and still seizure-free," Wetzel said.

But Michelle Jaskulski says marijuana put her sons, Kyle and Darrell, on a very dangerous path.

"It was the start of illicit drug use," Jaskulski said. "People who use marijuana — for whatever reason they use it — do so to alter their mind. Regardless if they're saying medical or recreational. I believe marijuana lowered my kids' inhibitions and made drug use not so bad or scary."

For Kyle and Darrell, that drug use escalated to heroin. Both boys nearly lost their lives to addiction and still work every day to stay clean.

"It was the start of illicit drug use. People who use marijuana — for whatever reason they use it — do so to alter their mind. Regardless if they're saying medical or recreational. I believe marijuana lowered my kids' inhibitions and made drug use not so bad or scary." — Michelle Jaskulski

"We're in the middle of potentially the worst epidemic we've seen of drugs," Jaskulski said. "I don't really think we need to be adding something else in the mix right now, until we get a handle on what we're already dealing with. I don't see what the big rush is to add marijuana."

Is marijuana a "gateway" drug? Veteran Steve Acheson says no. He believes it's more like a way out of the opioid epidemic.

"We need an alternative, an off ramp." he said.

After two tours of duty in Iraq, Acheson returned home injured.

"Really, the only option provided to me was pills," Acheson said. "I was on eight pills a day from the Veterans Affairs Medical Center. I was a zombie. Many veterans are prescribed opioids and it's unnecessary."

Acheson found that medical marijuana was a better alternative for him and has become a national advocate for legalization.

"I use it every day and am a much healthier person," he said. "I'm a husband and father and upstanding citizen. But every day I step out my door, I have to worry about being convicted of a crime because I have marijuana."

According to American addiction centers, opioid-related deaths dropped by about 33 percent in 13 states within six years of medical marijuana legalization. Many national veterans organizations are taking notice.

"I use it every day and am a much healthier person. I'm a husband and father and upstanding citizen. But every day I step out my door, I have to worry about being convicted of a crime because I have marijuana." — veteran Steve Acheson

But the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and many medical professionals, say that study does not prove cause and effect. They say no large-scale clinical trials have been done.

"We don't have well-controlled scientific studies that have replicated the use of marijuana as a treatment for really anything," says Dr. George Morris, who treats epilepsy at Columbia St. Mary's and is the president-elect of the Medical Society of Wisconsin.

Since 1970, marijuana has been classified by the federal government as a highly restricted controlled substance, with no accepted medical use.

"Because of that classification, pharmaceutical companies are a bit leery about doing research on a product they may never be able to distribute," Morris said.

Nearly 50 years since that federal classification was set, 33 states and the District of Columbia have challenged it, making marijuana legal for medical purposes only. Ten states and the District of Columbia have legalized "recreational" marijuana use.

"What we need is for some of those states to start doing their studies and research," Morris said. "But, as of now, the words medical and marijuana do not belong together."

While some byproducts of marijuana — such as Epidiolex — are FDA approved, Morris says most evidence surrounding the plant itself is only anecdotal. That means everyone could experience different results and side effects.

The World Health Organization and Association of Psychiatrists are opposed to medical marijuana legalization. State lawmakers who are also against it say that helps prove their case.

"Psychiatrists have come out and said that the effects of long-term use of marijuana on a teenager are as harmful as lead," said Sanfelippo.

But Evers argues that enough positive research is out there.

"People are trying to make this more than what it is," Evers said. "There are plenty of studies that indicate marijuana can be used in many circumstances that help people, including pain management."

This issue is not just about health, though.

Evers wants to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. Also, under his plan, anyone who completed jail time or probation for possessing, manufacturing or distributing less than 25 grams of the drug would have that removed from their record.

"We're spending too much time prosecuting and incarcerating people, and often people of color, for non-violent crimes related to possessing small amounts of marijuana," he said.

"For too long, Wisconsin's criminal justice system has been anything but just," added Rep. David Crowley, who says 40 percent of all black men arrested in Milwaukee County are arrested for low-level drug offenses.

"I see it all the time," said attorney Craig Johnson. "Studies have found that marijuana use is pretty consistent across different ethnic groups. But when it comes to enforcing those laws, you see a much larger impact on communities of color. It's not fair."

Being busted with 10 dollars of pot, for example, can have far-reaching implications.

"It's a criminal conviction on your record," Johnson said. "That ends up, in many cases, being a barrier to employment and housing. It's a red flag on a background check."

But a local judge tells TODAY'S TMJ4 that reducing the penalty for any amount of marijuana is a bad idea.

Evers will deliver his first budget address — including federal funding to support the legalization of medical marijuana and decriminalization of marijuana — Thursday evening.