STEVENS POINT — It’s looking like Wisconsin residents will be following the old “Oleomargarine Trail” again soon.
Illinois reopened the trail by making recreational pot legal, taking effect as soon as Jan. 1. That means Wisconsin will be an island. Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan have legalized marijuana use, with the latter two allowing residents to buy and consume it for any reason. For those counting, 33 states have now legalized pot for medical or recreational use.
Some of us remember the days when Wisconsin had a law banning margarine in a failed effort to protect its dairy farms. Our parents would drive to Illinois for the contraband, and our first introduction to illegal smuggling was seeing those boxes of margarine in the trunks of our parents’ Chevy Impalas.
The well-intended silliness ended in 1967, when margarine became legal here. But a lot of residents from populous southern Wisconsin will be following the old trail on a regular basis again soon, donating to adjoining states’ tax coffers as they buy the pot of their choice. Folks, it’s a fact of life: Some people like pot, some don’t. The vast majority of those who do are otherwise law-abiding citizens who pay taxes and eat butter just like those who don’t. Users would add they have more fun, but that is a subjective statement.
What is not subjective is how some other states got to marijuana legalization. Most of them were controlled by Democratic majorities. Republicans in Wisconsin oppose legalization and favor big government that makes all the decisions for local folks, including everything from what people smoke to how much local governments can tax for fixing busted roads.
But then there are states like Colorado, which legalized recreational pot thanks to a citizen initiative, which allows citizens to place new legislation on a popular ballot. The state’s Democratic governor, John Hickenlooper (who made a lot of money in the liquor business), and virtually all elected state officials opposed the initiative, but it passed, and the politicians eventually made pot legal.
Elected officials have long opposed citizen initiatives, and they make some good points. Well-funded interest groups can gain undue influence through the process, and it can muck up the daily business of running a government.
But in the days since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized speech for inanimate entities like corporations in its Citizens United decision, average folks have seen their voices muted. On issues that range from climate change and gun control to funding for local schools, politicians ignore the will of the majority and follow ideological scripts written for them by outsiders with deep pockets. You could say the system has gone to pot.
The current cast of characters in the state Capitol takes a paternalistic “we know what’s best for you” approach to ruling. Big government is alive and well in Wisconsin.
Ballot initiatives were born in the Progressive Era, and no other state can claim more credit for that movement than Wisconsin. But we spurned the initiative process. It would take an amendment to the state Constitution to change that, no easy task. Imagine what a donnybrook that would be. It would draw opposition from powerful forces on all sides, but it might also unite the average folks, regardless of their political leanings. The chances for this happening seem as likely as pot legalization in Wisconsin right now, but it’s not impossible, especially if average folks ever decide they’ve had enough big state government.
Bill Berry of Stevens Point writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org
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