When Wisconsinites buy legal marijuana in neighboring states
Legalization of recreational cannabis in Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota created a cross-border market for Wisconsin residents, impacting law enforcement responses and political debate in the state.
By Zac Schultz | Here & Now
October 26, 2023
Wisconsin is surrounded by legal marijuana, with both Illinois and Michigan legalizing the recreational use of marijuana in the last few years and Minnesota voting to do the same earlier in 2023.
The Wisconsin Policy Forum estimates more than half of all state residents over the age of 21 live within a 75-minute drive to a legal dispensary, and that number will only increase as Minnesota’s dispensaries start opening in the next couple of years.
This trend leaves Wisconsin residents and law enforcement caught in a gray area, where a product purchased legally in another state becomes illegal the minute it crosses the border.
The Highway 41 bridge travels over the Menominee River, carrying you out of Wisconsin, and into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Take the first right, and you’re in the parking lot of a recreational marijuana dispensary.
If you go through the drive-thru, you don’t even need to exit your car to purchase legal marijuana products and start the drive back across the river.
“Yeah, just a really optimal location,” said Lindsay Martwick, the director of retail operations for Higher Love. She noted most of their customers are from over the border.
“A good majority are folks from Wisconsin,” Martwick said.
The business currently operates out of a trailer, but is building a permanent location next door.
“The folks that are coming to us from Wisconsin, we get to bring more people into the Higher Love family,” said Martwick. “We’re just happy to be able to provide the products and services and supports for people from other states, and be nice and close to the border for convenience.”
But when their customers cross the bridge into Marinette, the product they just bought is illegal.
“It’s pretty consistent that cars that are stopped have marijuana products, especially if they’re traveling through the area, not necessarily from the area,” said Patrick Callahan, a narcotics investigator for the Marinette County Sheriff’s Office.
“My office, we are charged with enforcing the laws. Marijuana is against the law in the state of Wisconsin in any form,” said DeShea Morrow, the Marinette County District Attorney.
Together, they are trying to figure out how to handle the surge of Wisconsin residents taking day trips for recreational marijuana.
“That 141 corridor within the drug unit kind of had the nickname of the Green Highway, the Green Corridor, just because it was very well known for several years now since those dispensaries opened up. That was kind of the quickest access point for legal weed for close to near a million people — residents of Wisconsin,” Callahan said.
So far, most people pulled over with small amounts of dispensary marijuana have avoided arrest. Instead they likely receive a citation and the confiscation of their purchase.
“There’s always been a triage approach. There has to be in this line of work. And so, yes, if it’s a small amount of weed, that may be treated differently than a small amount of heroin,” DeShea said.
On April 20, a Marinette County Sheriff’s deputy pulled over a car with two men and seized a backpack full of recreational marijuana.
When the sheriff’s office displayed the bust on their Facebook page, the post attracted thousands of comments, ranging from ridicule to support.
“I don’t think people really realize that that’s not everything that we got. I mean, we had four or five other interdiction stops that day, and that was just one traffic stop,” Callahan said. “So, there was a lot of feedback. But we refer to the district attorney and the laws of the state of Wisconsin.”
The two men received ordinance citations for $263. They had traveled from Oshkosh, more than 100 miles away.
In many ways it’s not surprising, as some of the dispensaries start advertising on billboards as far south as Fond du Lac.
“The more we can advertise and let people know that we’re here, the better,” Martwick said, adding that the risk belongs to the customer.
It’s a risk they’re clearly willing to take.
“They know that where they’re heading, it’s not legal and no one wants to be in that light,” said Martwick. “So we do make sure to try to express to our customers what to pay attention to if they are crossing that line.”
“It’s clear that the most dangerous thing about cannabis in Wisconsin is that it is illegal,” said state Sen. Melissa Agard, D-Madison.
“We are an island of prohibition,” she said. “And prohibition did not work in Wisconsin when it came to alcohol or margarine. It’s not working when it comes to cannabis.”
“It is clear: Nearly seven out of 10 people in Wisconsin support responsible adult-use policy for cannabis with a medicinal component,” Agard said.
However, the state senator doesn’t have any Republican support for her bill, which means it may not get a hearing, much less get a vote on the floor.
“For the last three sessions, I’ve been working on a bill around medical marijuana,” said state Sen. Mary Felzkowski, R-Irma. “It’s slowly gaining — caucuses are very much more open to it.”
Felzkowski’s district includes most of Marinette County. Her bill, not introduced yet, would legalize medicinal marijuana, which would require a patient to see a doctor to get a prescription.
As a cancer survivor, Felzkowski wants to see more options for pain management.
“I’m trying to help patients,” she said. “I know people who have had very debilitating medical conditions, our veterans — the PTSD, MS. And I have first-hand knowledge of what opioids do to you as a side effect.”
But Felzkowski is facing stiff opposition from her Republican colleagues who see medical marijuana as a gateway to recreational marijuana. She said Agard’s bill doesn’t help.
“Melissa is very much in favor of this. And she can do, you know, whatever. But does make it harder in our caucus,” said Felzkowski. “I think a lot of our caucus members are looking at this going, ‘You know, we don’t want to be Illinois, we don’t want to be Minnesota.'”
Agard said Felzkowski’s last version of the bill didn’t go far enough.
“So the devil is in the details with all policymaking, and Sen. Felzkowski has been outspoken about her support for medicinal cannabis in Wisconsin,” said Agard.
But while the debate hasn’t even started at the Capitol, the cars still head north on Highway 41.
Morrow said local prosecutors would appreciate some clarity from Madison.
“They need to look at laws that are going to protect our young people and also to send a very clear message to people in the state, but also to law enforcement to give us bright lines on how to enforce this,” she said.
“I don’t really have advice for them,” Felzkowski said. “I feel bad that they’re put in this position. I think they’re in an untenable situation where, what is the win here? I mean, there really is no win.”
Felzkowski said she’s hoping to get a public hearing on her bill, and maybe on a vote on the floor. But final passage may still be a long way off.
“It’s a heavy lift this session. I’m not going to say it’s not,” said Felzkowski. “But, I’m optimistic. I’m optimistic.”