Ten years ago Tuesday, Wisconsin medical marijuana patient Jacki Rickert led a 210-mile trek of wheelchair-bound patients to the state capitol in Madison in a "Journey for Justice" seeking legal access to the medicine they said made their lives bearable. This Tuesday, Rickert commemorated that anniversary with a press conference at the capitol, where she was joined by two state representatives who announced they would introduce a medical marijuana bill this session. They are calling it the "Jacki Rickert Medical Marijuana Act."
With a history of failed medical marijuana bills in the state and a legislature with one house controlled by Republicans, proponents are not predicting certain victory this session, but they do say they will give it their best shot.
Jacki Rickert and Gary Storck, with Jim and the late Cheryl Miller, outside former Rep. Bob Barr's office (immly.org)
While medical marijuana is legal in 12 states, a victory in Wisconsin would be the first in the Midwest. But Wisconsin will have to hustle to be the first; legislative efforts have already advanced in Illinois and Minnesota, and Michigan looks to be set for a statewide initiative in November 2008.
If Reps. Frank Boyle (D-Superior) and Mark Pocan (D-Madison) have their way, Wisconsin will be in the thick of the race. "We want to make sure that this is the year Wisconsin gets it," Boyle said at the Tuesday press conference. "Twelve states have now legalized medical marijuana, and I'm sick and tired of the state of Wisconsin dying a most regressive death in what used to be progressive tradition."
While the measure is still in the drafting stage, according to a cosponsoring memo being circulated by Boyle and Pocan, the Jacki Rickert Medical Marijuana Act's key provisions include the following:
* Provide a medical necessity defense to marijuana-related prosecutions and property seizure actions. A person may evoke this defense if they are undergoing a debilitating medical condition or treatment and have written consent from their physician or obtained a valid registry ID card from the Department of Health and Family Services (DHFS). Conditions include cancer, glaucoma, AIDS or HIV, diseases that cause wasting away, severe pain or nausea, seizures or severe and persistent muscle spasms, and any other medical condition or treatment in rules promulgated by DHFS.
* Create a maximum authorized amount of marijuana a patient may have, thus establishing clear limits for both patients and law enforcement officials.
* Prohibit the arrest of a physician who provides a written certification in good faith. Also, the primary caregiver is protected by the same exceptions under the law.
* The defense may not be applicable if the patient performs an illegal act while using marijuana. This includes driving or operating a motor vehicle, operating heavy machinery, smoking near a school, park or youth center, at a person's employment, etc.
* Require DHFS to establish a registry for medical users of marijuana and an ID card to a qualifying patient.
* This bill only changes state law regarding marijuana. Federal law on marijuana does not change. However, 99% of marijuana arrests are made by state and local officials, not federal officials.
"If someone has the written consent of their physician or has obtained a valid registry card from DHFS, they would be allowed to have the possession or be able to grow a certain amount of medicinal marijuana," Pocan explained.
"Please, we have to make this legal," Rickert told the press conference. "I beg all of you. We know it works. We know it's not going to kill us," Rickert said. "I have never had an allergic reaction to a God-given herb."
Rickert wasn't the only patient speaking Tuesday. A 21-year-old, who called herself only Lynn, said she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis two years earlier, and lost her sight, mobility and independence from the disease. Lynn told the crowd smoking medical marijuana worked on her symptoms when nothing else did, eventually allowing her to be well enough to live on her own.
"If you had a 19-year-old daughter who was in pain every day, what would you do to help?" Lynn asked. "You could be put on five different drugs three times a day every day, like I was. Or you can take pot, and now I'm on two drugs a day."
Another patient, J.F. Oschwald of Colorado, addressed the press conference from his wheelchair. "Medicine is medicine and if they can regulate morphine then they can regulate marijuana," he said.
"This was a nice start," said medical marijuana patient Gary Storck, who, along with Rickert, is a cofounder of the Wisconsin medical marijuana advocacy group Is My Medicine Legal Yet?. "We had a number of patients speak, as well as Boyle and Pocan, and we got some good media coverage," he told the Chronicle.
Responses at the capitol have grown less frosty than a decade ago, Storck said. "When I go up there lobbying with patients, I'm seeing changed attitudes. We're being well-received, and you can see that some of the staffers are really affected. It looks like this is finally gaining some legs," he said.
Part of the change in attitude is due to the educational efforts of medical marijuana activists and proponents, said Storck. "Patients are more willing to come out and let their stories be told, and that only helps," he said. "The fact that other states are passing it or coming close to passing it helps, too. We're ringed by states where they're already a little closer."
But with Republicans controlling the state Assembly, it will be a difficult battle this two-year session, he said. "We've got an agreement from one senator to hold an informational hearing in November, but I'm afraid this will just be caught up in politics as usual this session. I'm hoping the Democrats will take back the Assembly next year -- that would really improve our chances. Gov. Doyle has already said he will sign a medical marijuana bill," Storck added.
Still, Storck, Rickert, IMMLY and other medical marijuana supporters aren't waiting for next year. "There's always the hope the legislature will come to its senses," he said. "Legislators have until October 4 to sign on as cosponsors, and we're hoping a senator or two will sign on so it can move. While we think we'll have better luck with a Democrat-controlled legislature, we will continue to push now."