MADISON — Assembly Speaker Robin Vos says he's open to legalizing medical marijuana in Wisconsin, shocking at least one other Republican leader at the state Capitol and exciting marijuana advocates.
"I'm not an expert on medical marijuana, but I certainly have no problem saying, if you have a sincere medical need and your doctor prescribes it, and it's done under the normal process of any other opiate, I would be open to that," Vos said.
Vos' counterpart in the state Senate, Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, seemed shocked.
"He said that?" Fitzgerald responded when a reporter asked him for comment. No, I'm not that far. I have no idea where the caucus would be, but I'm certainly not there personally."
Vos said he would not offer medical marijuana legislation and didn't expect such a bill to advance in the Assembly. Nevertheless, advocates were encouraged.
"Maybe this year, 2017, 2018, we could actually see something happen with medical marijuana. If we already have some of the Republican leadership in favor of it -- or at least open-minded to it -- then that's our foot in the door and we've just got put the public pressure on," said Eric Marsch, Executive Director of Southeastern Wisconsin NORML.
Twenty-eight states have legalized medical marijuana in some form, including the Republican states of Arkansas, North Dakota and Montana in 2016.
Vos compared a doctor prescribing medical marijuana to the legal practice of prescribing opiate painkillers. Many state officials have said that Wisconsin has an opiate crisis.
Fitzgerald said he did not see medical marijuana as a way to curb the opiate addiction issue.
"I think it’s just the opposite," he said. "I think we need to continue to come up with tools to help law enforcement, and to some extent, maybe curtail the ability of medical professionals to prescribe."
Republican leaders say it is more likely that a separate issue -- legalizing CBD oil -- will pass the Legislature this year after stalling in the previous session.
The oil is a potentially life-saving treatment for children with seizures. It contains a trace amount of THC, the active chemical in marijuana.
Wisconsin legalized it in 2014 but, because of the way the law was written, parents say it's currently impossible to get access to the treatment. They've been asking lawmakers to try again, but the issue died in 2016 in the Senate.
"I've been told we'll have a little bit of a break there. And if that's the case, I think the votes are there in the Senate," Fitzgerald said. He said there had been a compromise among his members but didn't provide details.
Vos said he wanted the Legislature to pass expanded CBD oil legislation this year.
"Let’s try to get that done, show it’s not going to change the world – except for the families that need it," he said. "It’s not going to be a negative, as some people in the Senate have led us to believe that it would be."