Wisconsin attorney general candidates grapple with marijuana legalization questions

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MADISON, Wisconsin — The three Democrats battling to become attorney general grappled with questions Tuesday about legalizing marijuana in Wisconsin, with one saying it's too soon, another saying medicinal use might make sense and the third saying it's not his call.

Law students asked state Rep. Jon Richards during a candidate debate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison whether he would advocate for legalizing pot if he became attorney general. Richards said Wisconsin should watch how that "interesting experiment" plays out in Colorado and Washington, which recently legalized the drug, before it follows suit.

"The jury is still out on that," Richards said. "Until we more clearly see what's happening in those states it's too early for Wisconsin to go down that road."

Jefferson County District Attorney Susan Happ and Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne didn't get a chance to answer; Erin McBride, a UW law professor, presented the question only to Richards as part of a speed-round of questions for specific candidates.

Happ later told reporters that legalizing medicinal marijuana could be a logical first step as long as it's tightly regulated, noting that her father died of cancer and she would have done anything to relieve his suffering. But she said she wouldn't advocate for such a change.

Ozanne said after the debate that legalizing marijuana is an issue for the Legislature. He noted that he deals with armed robberies, home invasions and homicides driven in part by the drug trade and that trafficking pot offers large profits.

"I don't know if legalization ... would stop any of that," he said.

Richards, Happ and Ozanne will square off in a primary Aug. 12. The winner will go on to face Waukesha County's Republican district attorney, Brad Schimel, in the Nov. 4 general election. Incumbent Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen isn't seeking re-election.

The Democrats haven't done much to differentiate themselves. They have all said they would try to push back against Republican Gov. Scott Walker's collective bargaining restrictions and wouldn't defend the state's gay marriage ban or a Republican law requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls. They reiterated those positions during the debate Tuesday.

Ozanne took some soft jabs at Happ and Richards as the debate ended, saying his prosecutorial experience gives him the best shot against Schimel in November. Schimel has amassed the largest campaign chest by far, with $418,000 on hand as of July 28. Richards had $167,000; Happ had $131,000; and Ozanne had $7,700.

"The only certainty we have in this race right now is the Republican coming at us," Ozanne said. "We need to have that hard discussion among ourselves about who we want to win in November."

Happ acknowledged that the Democrats look alike, but she brushed off Ozanne's remarks, saying she has six years of prosecutorial experience and is "ready for a fight."

Richards, for his part, insisted he was the best person for the job because he's spent 15 years in the Legislature dealing with the state's issues in detail.


Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1

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