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Rep. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit, speaks to the media during a news conference at Sunnyside marijuana dispensary in South Beloit calling for legalization of marijuana in Wisconsin. The bill was authored by Rep. David Bowen, D-Milwaukee, (at left) and sponsored by Sen. Melissa Agard, D-Madison, (at right). The lawmakers were also joined by Rock County District 15 Supervisor Yuri Rashkin and Beloit City Council President Clinton Anderson.

SOUTH BELOIT — A group of Wisconsin Democrats are calling for the state to legalize marijuana, with the authors of the bill saying legalization would be a major revenue source and begin to address racial inequities caused by years of disproportionate drug enforcement affecting people of color.

On Tuesday, Rep. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit, Rep. David Bowen, D-Milwaukee and Sen. Melissa Agard, D-Madison, gathered at the Sunnyside marijuana dispensary in South Beloit to introduce a bill that would legalize recreational use of marijuana for adults in Wisconsin. Also joining the lawmakers were Beloit City Council President Clinton Anderson and Rock County District 15 Supervisor Yuri Rashkin.

The bill could generate $160 million in annual tax revenue for the state, the legislators said, 60% of which would be transferred into a community reinvestment fund supporting communities “most disproportionately affected by generations-old racist cannabis policies.”

Bowen, the lead author of the bill, said the legislation would begin to address wrongs done to communities of color impacted by the war on drugs.

A 2020 report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that Black people are 4.2 times more likely than White people to be arrested for marijuana possession in Wisconsin. Wisconsin ranked 14th in the nation for the largest racial disparities in arrests for marijuana possession and was among 17 states where arrests for marijuana possession increased from 2010 to 2018.

“These facts are undeniable and highlight how the war on drugs has done little more than widen the unconscionable disparities ripping families apart that turn our neighbors into criminals with a record,” Bowen said.

Across the nation, law enforcement made more than 6.1 million marijuana-related arrests from 2010 to 2018. Overall national arrest rates have trended downward, however in Wisconsin, marijuana possession arrests have actually increased 12.1% from 2010 to 2018, the report states.

Spreitzer, who serves as the Democratic caucus chairperson, said the issue was long overdue for action by legislators in Madison.

“However you feel about cannabis use, keeping it illegal isn’t helping anything. It’s only hurting. The people of Wisconsin are ready for legalization,” Spreitzer said.

Agard added, “It’s safe to say the landscape has changed and support has grown and continues to grow. There’s been a paradigm shift in our country,” referencing the 14 states that have legalized recreational marijuana use. In total, 34 states have taken some varying form of action to legalize marijuana use.

Illinois legalized recreational marijuana use for adults in 2019, with the first sales taking place last year. All lawmakers referenced the record revenues being brought into Illinois, with the trio noting Wisconsin was losing out on a major tax revenue windfall to neighboring states like Illinois and Michigan.

In 2020, Illinois sold $670 million in marijuana-related products that brought in $205.4 million in tax revenue, according to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation (IDFPR). Between January and June of this year, Illinois has generated more than $100 million in marijuana tax revenue. In terms of overall sales, Illinois has sold over $753 million in marijuana-related products this year, according to IDFPR data.

“Legalization would be the economic boost our state so desperately needs without one penny of tax dollars going to the industry,” Agard said.

Locally, Rock County voters spoke resoundingly in November 2018 after a non-binding advisory referendum gauging support for legalizing marijuana for adult use passed with nearly 70% of voters supporting it. The resolution was championed by Rashkin, who called Tuesday’s announcement regarding legalization “common sense.”

“We can’t do this alone,” Rashkin said. “We need help from the state and this is where it’s so important that this change is made on the state level. We can’t do this as an initiative. We need this done in Madison.”

In Beloit, Anderson said constituents have approached him multiple times since his election in 2017 regarding marijuana legalization.

“Ask any elected official, they see dollar signs leaving our community,” Anderson added. “Those dollars can trickle down to our community. The City of Beloit and the State of Wisconsin are missing out on a great opportunity, and I hope we can finally see some action in Madison.”

But it’s unclear if the legislative effort, first broached in 2013 by Agard, will pass the GOP-controlled Legislature as top Republicans in Madison remain unwilling to support legalization outright. Agard said the bill would circulate seeking co-sponsors for the next two weeks before moving forward.