FOX 11 Investigates pros and cons of legalizing marijuana

Jay Sethofner holds a hemp plant he is growing on his Green Lake farm, but would supports the legalization of marijuana and would like to grow that as a crop too.

GREEN LAKE (WLUK) -- Jay and Narin Selthofner would like to grow marijuana on their Green Lake farm. With marijuana illegal in Wisconsin they’ve been working for years to change the law as co-founders of the area’s NORML chapter, NORML being the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

"I think one of the major holdups is just the lack of education or misconception," said Jay Selthofner.

Right now the Selthofners are taking part in the state’s pilot program to grow hemp. They’re familiar with the plant since it has grown wild on their farm for decades. They are in the process of digging it up and transplanting it into an open plot for better cultivation.

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"We’re going to grow it for CBD production, I’m hoping to develop my own CBD product line by next year," explained Narin Selthofner.

CBD, or cannibidoil, is used in products that claim among other things to relieve pain and ease stress.

Narin also plans to offer an edible hemp-leaf salad mix. The hope is once hemp takes off, approval for marijuana will follow.

"I think once we have plants in the ground and they see it’s processed just like any agricultural crop a lot of our legislators are going to look at marijuana, medical marijuana differently," said Jay Selthofner.

Medical marijuana is legal in 29 states, including neighboring Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan. Marijuana grown for recreational use is legal in nine states and the District of Columbia, with Michigan set to vote on it in November.

A statewide Marquette University poll conducted two years ago found 59 percent of residents support the legalization of regulated marijuana. A Pew Research Poll in January found similar results, with 61 percent thinking marijuana should be made legal in Wisconsin.

Some Wisconsin lawmakers, including State Rep. Amanda Stuck, D-Appleton, have been pushing to legalize marijuana for years.

"Well I think we’re seeing a major change right now. People look at marijuana and a push as we see other states legalizing and the benefits it’s bringing in terms of income," said Stuck.

In states where marijuana is legal, the biggest benefits are the tax money it brings in and the jobs it creates. In Colorado, one of the first states to legalize marijuana, the state reports a $2.4 billion economic impact with 18,000 jobs created in the industry.

Based on Colorado’s success, the fiscal analysis of Wisconsin Assembly Bill 482 that Stuck co-sponsored in 2017 indicates there’s big money to gain. The Wisconsin Department of Revenue estimates legalizing recreational and medical marijuana would generate $140 million a year in tax and fee revenue. Costs to administer and manage revenue collection would be about 1 percent of that. ($1.4 million).

Stuck points out the medical benefits of THC in marijuana have been shown to relieve pain, stop seizures and ease stress, eliminating the need for many of the opioids that have flooded the market. And with marijuana legal, money could be saved by no longer having to prosecute and incarcerate individuals for many marijuana-related crimes.

"One of the biggest arguments is just the amount of money we spend in our corrections system on marijuana that we know it’s an over-burdened system as it is," said Stuck.

Department of Corrections documents show at the start of 2017 there were 806 inmates behind bars for a marijuana-related offense as part of their overall sentence. Another 5,500 were on community supervision at a cost of $16.5 million a year.

But critics point out legalizing marijuana can also cost a community in many ways.

The non-profit Police Foundation, in conjunction with Colorado's Association of Chiefs of Police, studied the impact of marijuana on public safety in Colorado. It details a wide range of problems associated with the legalization of marijuana. Among them: increased hospitalizations and homelessness, health concerns and building code violations from growing and using marijuana, and increased crime stemming, in part, from black market growers and distributors.

"It’s still a drug that still has impairment and still has some issues to the community," said Marinette Police Lt Scott Ries. Ries helped his city council to pass an ordinance last December making marijuana illegal, ahead of whatever the state eventually decides.

"It’s a cost to everybody in the community," explained Ries.

"What do you say to those individuals who are opposed to it and they say it’s going to harm society, that it’s going to cause more problems, it’s adding to the opioid epidemic and alcoholism?" FOX 11 Investigates asked the Selthofners.

"I think the only people who are taking that stand are people that are pure sobriety sort of people," said Narin Selthofner.

Narin and Jay Selthofner continue to push legislators to see the positive aspects of what marijuana has to offer. The hemp cannabis plant has a rich history in their part of the state, that’s why it can be found growing there like, well, a weed.

"I look at it as a gift. It’s always been here and now we’re being able to use it and hopefully bring it back to life, and you know educate the public, and feed the public and maybe even help heal the public," said Narin Selthofner.

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