Home The Soapbox Commentary: margarine has a lot to say about marijuana in Wisconsin

Commentary: margarine has a lot to say about marijuana in Wisconsin


Editors note: Recreational marijuana sales began with the new year in Illinois. Since we originally published this piece on June 16, dispensaries opened in Michigan. With Wisconsin becoming an island as it comes to the issue of marijuana, we figured it was worth pulling this story back to the top of the page and reviving the central question: is history about to repeat itself?

Wisconsin has had a long history of bucking trends and going its own way in regard to the law.

As the nation makes a decided move toward repealing prohibitions on marijuana, it’s worth a look at what history might tell us about Wisconsin’s current, dug-in legislative stance to maintain the status quo.

And interestingly, the best comparison might come in our choice of toast topping.

Younger generations may find it hard to believe, but for a long time, Wisconsin prohibited the sale of margarine.

Your grandmothers and great grandmothers were very likely criminals. It’s a long-ago issue that speaks to our modern debates.

But before moving on, let’s note for the record that history has often been kind on the Dairyland for a number of its trailblazing, to-hell-with-the-rest-of-you, statehouse efforts.

On June 10, Wisconsin celebrated the centennial of being the first state to ratify the 19th Amendment, which afforded women the right to vote. In 1982, Wisconsin became the first state to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Other examples proved more questionable and brought state borders into play.

Wisconsin hemmed and hawed on the federal government’s requirement that states set their drinking age at 21 until things started getting real. Our 19-year-olds bellied up to the bar right up until the deadline at which Wisconsin’s highway funding would’ve been slashed. Notably, taverns on the southern border became havens for 19- and 20-year-olds in Illinois who couldn’t have a legal beer in their homeland.

Though as for lone-gun lawmaking, Wisconsin is perhaps best known for laws on a certain substance that loosens taste buds rather than inhibitions.

It’s remembered as the Oleo Wars.

Oleo, for those unfamiliar, is the old-timey description for the substance that today goes by names such as “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.” Wisconsin used the long arm of the law in support of its dairy community. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course, although we know that even good ideas can go too far.

So as the remainder of the nation enjoyed its oil-based, easily spreadable butter substitute, Wisconsin residents were forced to either use the real deal or head for the border on smuggling runs.

Ultimately, many decided their spread of choice was good cause to turn to criminal action.

We know history isn’t a line, but a circle. So as Wisconsin lawmakers dig in their heels on marijuana laws, it’s worth asking: will pot become the state’s new oleo?

Beginning Jan 1, dispensaries in Illinois will begin selling marijuana for recreational purposes. Michigan has also legalized recreational marijuana, although the state hasn’t yet reached a regulatory structure for sale. Sooner than later, residents in the Fox Cities will be able to hop onto U.S. 41 in either direction and be within hours of legally acquiring a stash of the devil’s lettuce.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers proposed a lesser compromise that would have set forth legal marijuana for medicinal purposes and overall, decriminalization as opposed to legalization. Even those proposals were a no-go for the state’s Republicans.

So what does Mazola say about Mary Jane?

Wisconsin passed its first anti-margarine laws in 1881, and in 1895, strengthened them by banning the manufacture and sale of margarines dyed yellow.

Laws which promoted butter over margarine existed across the country, however the voices of consumers won out in places not named Wisconsin. The federal government repealed its margarine taxes in 1950. States followed the federal lead.

Wisconsin, however, maintained its ban on margarine until 1967. Even while the pseudo butter found its way to the Wisconsin market at that point, restaurants were still prohibited from serving it instead of butter unless customers made a request.

In response, our cooks put up the metaphorical middle finger through day trips to the Land of Lincoln. In the 1960s, it’s been said that gas stations just south of the Wisconsin border in Illinois were selling upwards of one ton of oleo each and every week.

For marijuana, as for oleo, it’s a certainty that our borders will come into play. If Wisconsin lawmakers had a change of heart and legalized pot tomorrow, making it happen would undoubtedly be a slow moving process.

Oleo, of course, cannot offer direct correlations.

Folks, for example, weren’t setting up for oleo production set-ups  in the corners of their basements.

Still, referenda last year show residents are on a different page than those they put into office.

Residents voted overwhelmingly in advisory questions in support of medicinal marijuana. Majorities voted on ending prohibition.

So when and how long will it take for marijuana users to win over lawmakers in the same way that housewives forced the oleo issue?

That’s the big question.

For the time being, I’d never question any entrepreneurs looking to set up dispensaries in the Gurnee area.