Advisory referendums on marijuana driven by grassroots effort

A number of marijuana advisory referendums appearing on this year’s midterm ballot were proposed by city and county officials at the request of their constituents.

Gary Storck, a publisher and cannabis activist in Wisconsin, chalks up this year’s unprecedented number of marijuana referendums to “the amazing work of grassroots people all over the state.”

He points out that 52 percent of the state’s population lives in an area with some sort of cannabis question going before voters Nov. 6.

“I think that’s something the governor — whoever that might be — really has to take into account,” Storck said. “You can’t just blow it off.”

In Milwaukee County, Storck credits County Supervisor Sylvia Ortiz-Velez as “one of the lead people” in the effort. He notes Milwaukee County was the first county to add a cannabis referendum this year.

In Dane County, Storck reached out to his own supervisor, Yogesh Chawla, to get the ball rolling.

Earlier in the summer, Storck was contacted through Facebook by a resident of Langlade County, who had noticed Marathon County would have a marijuana question and wanted to pursue one, too.

From there, Storck reached out to county-level decision makers and also had a group of military veterans come to a board meeting to show support. Now, Langlade County is one of 10 with a medical cannabis referendum.

Storck says Kenosha County Supervisor Andy Berg, an active duty military member, was instrumental in getting the referendum added there.

“He actually postponed the vote on it, because he had to go on active duty,” he said. “So this didn’t come from the usual suspects.”

In Rock County, Storck pointed to committee member Yuri Rashkin, who submitted the resolution and spoke in favor of legalization. In Eau Claire County, he says County Supervisor Gerald Wilkie played an important role. And in Racine County, he says the efforts of board member Fabian Maldonado led to the addition of a multi-part cannabis question on the ballot.

In some counties, Storck says referendums were proposed and approved without any involvement from advocacy groups, as board members acted on the requests of individual constituents.

Some of the groups pushing for cannabis legalization in the state include the Wisconsin Justice Initiative, SE WI NORML and Madison NORML, two local chapters of a national marijuana advocacy group. Storck helped found the Madison chapter.

In all, 16 counties passed their referendums and will have some form of marijuana questions go before voters. According to Storck, 21 counties in total had proposals submitted, but five failed to pass. He’s confident that Outagamie County and several others will take up the issue again for the spring ballot.

Still, Storck believes the referendums in November will carry the most weight, as they’re coming in an election where recreational cannabis legalization could be on the horizon for other nearby states, such as Michigan.

Aside from the 16 counties, two cities will have marijuana referendums this fall: Racine and Waukesha. Both city councils voted in favor in early August, after two alders submitted proposals.

In Waukesha, District 12 alder Aaron Perry proposed a medical cannabis referendum alongside Cassandra Rodriguez and Cory Payne. The final vote was 7-4, according to a blog post from Storck.

In Racine, District 3 alder John Tate II proposed a multi-part question for both recreational and medical use, which also included a section on how proceeds from cannabis taxes would be spent. The final vote was 10-3, per a report in the Racine Journal Times.

Storck says he didn’t see much opposition to any of the proposals, aside from “tepid stuff” from local anti-drug groups.

“They try to pull together enough numbers to change the dialogue,” he said. “They’re always outgunned. There’s a lot more people who support this.”

Storck is a Madison resident, activist and former lobbyist. He’s lobbied for cannabis reform at many levels of government including the city councils for Madison and Tomah; the Dane County Board; state legislators in Wisconsin, Oregon and Michigan; and federal lawmakers in the nation’s capital.

Storck is particularly pleased about the referendum in Waukesha, where he was born and raised. He says this represents a major cultural shift from the 1970s, when marijuana was seen in a more negative light in his hometown.

He sees a statewide cultural shift in favor of marijuana, and says the public hearings on the referendum proposals prove that. In Brown County, which will have a question related to medical use, he says testimony went on for hours.

Storck says citizens lined up to lend their voices without fear of being labelled as “druggies.” That helps break down the stigma, he says, as folks can find their neighbors share the same views.

The most recent Marquette Law School Poll found 61 percent of respondents say marijuana should be fully legal and regulated like alcohol.

“My prediction is it’s going to win in every county,” he said, despite describing nine of the 16 counties with pot referendums as “leaning red.” Since 10 of the questions are on medical use alone, he sees “no problem” with those passing in the current political climate.

And in urban areas like Milwaukee and Madison, he’s even more confident voters will turn out in support of recreational use for adults.

Aaron Perry, the alderman from Waukesha who helped get a medical marijuana question on the midterm ballot, sees the referendum as “part of the process of changing the law.”

Although these are advisory referendums and won’t change any cannabis laws, Perry thinks it’s a step in the right direction.

“This is a health care issue,” he told “All we see on TV is ads about health care and the election. This isn’t about getting high; this is about solving health care problems.”

He says that issue will need to be decided on the state level, and the referendum gives people a chance to send a message to their state legislators.

Earlier this year, he met with one of the Waukesha residents he represents after that person asked about how to get cannabis on the midterm ballot. That constituent’s daughter-in-law had stage 4 breast cancer and had heard about the medical benefits of cannabis.

“I said, ‘Let’s take it up in the city,’” he said. “Looking at the range of medical issues people deal with… cancer, other pain issues… It makes all the sense in the world to have this legalized in the state of Wisconsin.”

Perry said he’s seen enough research to justify his belief, especially as it pertains to the opioid problem. Studies have shown that greater legal availability of cannabis is connected to lower levels of opioid prescriptions.

He says he’s not in favor of full recreational legalization, but strongly believes the drug should be medically available. To support the midterm referendum, he’s posting on social media and even going door to door to drive the vote.

See a previous story on this year’s referendums:

–By Alex Moe