Iowa has fallen behind the rest of the nation.
The vast majority of Americans now live in places with safe access to medical marijuana. Eight states have legalized small amounts of marijuana for recreational use, and 17 other state legislatures are considering bills to do so right now, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Blue states no longer have a monopoly on drug reform — Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky, and Utah are a few of the states where deregulation bills are alive in the statehouse.
Middle-of-the-road Iowa remains one of the harshest states for marijuana enforcement. First-time possession here is punishable by up to six months in jail and we have a medical cannabis law that helps precisely no one.
There is growing bipartisan support for marijuana reform in Iowa, but so far it hasn’t been a priority at the Republican-controlled statehouse this year. A couple important bills have survived the legislative funnel so far, but they’re competing with a long list of other legislative priorities.
The conservative case for marijuana reform has never been stronger — Iowa has an opportunity to reduce government spending, uphold civil liberties, and restore local control.
Senate File 432 is a bill to reduce first-time marijuana possession from a serious misdemeanor to a simple misdemeanor, which carries a lighter punishment and also clears the way for greater local control.
The bill enjoyed bipartisan support when it was approved by the Iowa Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month — 12 yes votes, and just a single no. Groups lobbying in support include the League of Women Voters and the American Civil Liberties Union. The only organization registered in opposition is the Iowa State Police Association.
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Iowa’s non-partisan Legislative Services Agency issued a positive forecast for SF 432. Analysts found that the bill would lead to fewer jail intakes and shorter jail stays, which ultimately would save the state general fund more than $100,000 annually, in addition to savings at the county level.
The most important impact would be on local governments.
Iowa Code forbids local governments from making civil infractions out of serious misdemeanors, which first-time marijuana possession currently is. If possession is made a simple misdemeanor, however, local governments could make it a civil infraction and provide lower penalties than the state.
I’ve worked on criminal justice reform issues at the local level in my hometown of Iowa City for several years. Local leaders are overwhelmingly sympathetic, but they say they’re obligated to enforce the drug laws on the books. SF 432 would empower them to enact policies that suit their communities.
The national model for this kind of policy is a fellow Big Ten community — Ann Arbor, Michigan. Since the 1970s, marijuana enforcement has been under local control and most offenders are given a small fine, like a traffic ticket, and never step foot in a jail or courthouse.
A Colorado-style referendum for full legalization is not on the horizon in Iowa. It’s clear that drug reform here will be an incremental battle over several legislative sessions.
But local control is a good place to start. What works in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids may not work in Council Bluffs and Sioux City, and that’s OK.
• Adam Sullivan’s column appears on Fridays. Comments: Sullivan.AB@gmail.com; adam4liberty.com