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MILWAUKEE, WI — Analysts say Illinois is poised to become the second-largest marijuana market in the country, and one Wisconsin corporate attorney says the Badger State is already lagging behind, missing out on business investment and tax money.

Paloma Kennedy is a corporate attorney based in Milwaukee with Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren. In her profession, Kennedy works with business entity formation, helping companies get off the ground by clearing legal hurdles, drawing up contracts and reviewing key documents.

In her personal opinion, Kennedy says Wisconsin is already losing out.

“Everyone has been expecting the gold rush to occur here in Wisconsin in terms of new entrepreneurial business opportunities, but what will happen as soon as those opportunities are literally just a state away, especially for a lot of individuals in Wisconsin that live just over the border?” Kennedy said.

As Patch previously reported, a study from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute estimated $1.6 billion worth of marijuana will be sold in the state, based on the relative purchasing power of the state compared to Colorado.

Marijuana Business Daily projected that Illinois recreational market could grow beyond $2 billion and more than 295 stores could be open by 2022. Marijuana sales will be taxed at a sliding scale on the state level, and local governments may also impose their own taxes.

Kennedy says she has already seen Wisconsin business owners indicate that they’re taking their businesses across state lines in order to take advantage of the burgeoning market. Wisconsin launched an industrial hemp pilot program in 2018 and now has more than 2,100 applications for licenses in 2019, according to Wiscontext.

“When recreational use is finally put in place, there is a real risk for Wisconsin economic development,” she said. “People will start to fund or send investment money or business across state lines in order to take advantage of legalization in Illinois.”

State Lawmakers Deadlocked

Voters in support of legalizing marijuana for either medicinal or recreational purposes smoked their opponents in ballot measures in several southeastern Wisconsin counties during the Nov. 2018 election. Yet despite gains made by supporters, and changing voter attitudes, it may be a while before Wisconsin lawmakers formally adopt new legislation supporting marijuana use.

Kennedy says that with a Democratic Governor’s Office, and a Republican-controlled legislature, it appears that Wisconsin’s political landscape may be too divided today to push legislation forward.

Yet Kennedy also said Wisconsin could be at an advantage if lawmakers were to reconsider down the road.

“We have the advantage to learn what other states have done, and we can come into the legalization arena with more knowledge and preparedness,” she said.

When asked what some of that preparedness meant, Kennedy said state lawmakers will have the ability to review lessons learned by other states when it came to packaging and safeguards when it comes to children, and legal limits on where marijuana can be sold, distributed and used. “I think that some of the fear in Wisconsin is based on safety, though I think that issue is something that can be tackled,” she said.

Voter Attitudes Changing

While lawmakers may be stuck, voters in the 16 counties where the advisory referendums were posed were decisive. Each of the 16 counties overwhelmingly supported legalization in some form.

Percentage of voters in counties who supported some form of marijuana legalization on Nov. 2018:

88% Kenosha
85% Racine
83% Portage
82% Marathon
81% Lincoln
80% Sauk
79% Forest
78% Marquette
77% Langdale
76% Dane
76% Brown
70% Milwaukee
69% Rock
67% Clark
63% La Crosse
54% Eau Claire

Counties where Wisconsin voters supported marijuana use referendums, Fall 2018

“While these referendums were only advisory, they show cannabis law reform to be more popular than many of the lawmakers who won in these areas. This should send a strong message to the incoming Wisconsin legislature that cannabis law reform – including medical cannabis, cannabis decriminalization, and cannabis legalization – must be a priority in 2019,” Eric Marsch, Executive Director of Southeastern Wisconsin NORML told Patch.

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, is a Washington D.C.-based lobbying organization focused on the decriminalization of marijuana. NORML has regional offices, including in Wisconsin.

Marsch said that another huge victory for the pro-cannabis group was the election of Gov. Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul.

“Both are very supportive of medical cannabis and open-minded on recreational cannabis. The close margin in those statewide races means they both owe their jobs to the hundreds of thousands of cannabis voters who came out to support the referendums,” he said.

A Marquette University Law School poll conducted just before the Fall 2018 Election reported that 61 percent of likely voters in Wisconsin said marijuana should be fully legalized and regulated like alcohol, while 36 percent opposed legalization. The last time the poll was conducted in July 2016, 59 percent supported legalization and 39 percent were opposed.

Racine County Supervisor Nick Demske is part of a coalition of elected officials in Racine County that supports the legalization of cannabis in the area.

“As most know, there’s a vast body of research now pointing to the medical, social and economic benefits of legalizing cannabis,” he said. “There are a great many people whose families could benefit from medical marijuana being legalized in Racine County.

Demske said he’s heard from senior citizens suffering from chronic health conditions, parents with young children suffering from conditions that are well-known to be treatable with cannabis. He added that he’s heard from people who identify from all over the political spectrum.

“It was surprising to me at first, but I understand why that is,” he said. “Chronic illness does not discriminate based on a person’s politics. If you have to watch your child endure more than 100 seizures a day, and you read about how families are migrating in large numbers to areas where cannabis is legal so their children can live pain-free functioning lives, this is not a politically-motivated decision.

Jonah Meadows, Patch Staff, Contributed To This Report.

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