Staff Columnist

Two crucial marijuana bills still alive in Iowa Legislature

Lawmakers could make historic - and bipartisan - progress

Amber Balek-Lenius, of Mason City, marches at the Iowa Capitol on Tuesday, April 7, 2015, in Des Moines with her daughter, Eden, 6. Daughter Norah, 2, is in the stroller. Balek-Lenius was among a crowd marching in support of expanding Iowa's medical cannabis law. Photo by Erin Murphy/Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau
Amber Balek-Lenius, of Mason City, marches at the Iowa Capitol on Tuesday, April 7, 2015, in Des Moines with her daughter, Eden, 6. Daughter Norah, 2, is in the stroller. Balek-Lenius was among a crowd marching in support of expanding Iowa's medical cannabis law. Photo by Erin Murphy/Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau

Two important marijuana reform bills survived the first funnel deadline of the 2018 Iowa Legislature.

Iowa has one of the country’s most outdated sets of rules governing marijuana, attributable in part to resistance from Republican legislative leaders. Yet this year in Des Moines, we see strong signs that the holdouts’ opposition is softening, and several conservatives are even making marijuana reform a priority.

A bill to decrease penalties for first-time possession and another to fix Iowa’s unworkable medical marijuana program both cleared the Iowa Senate Judiciary Committee this month, meaning they are still alive and eligible for consideration.

Senate File 2180 would make a misdemeanor out of first-time possession of five grams or less of marijuana, punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a fine ranging from $65 to $625. That would be a major improvement over the existing serious misdemeanor charge, with up to six months in jail and up to a $1,000 fine.

State policy analysts say the bill would result in nearly 2,000 fewer serious misdemeanor convictions during its first full year in place. That’s estimated to save the state more than $150,000 annually, and local governments would see additional cost savings on top of that.

Lobbyists supporting the bill include those representing the Iowa City government, where criminal justice reform efforts in recent years have been hampered by the state’s overbearing laws.

At least 22 other states have effectively decriminalized first-time possession for small amounts of marijuana, including our neighbors Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, and Nebraska, according to resources from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

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Another bill, Senate File 2313, would give a state board the power to expand medical marijuana treatments and cover more ailments.

A law passed last year allowed for production and distribution of medical marijuana, but strict restrictions on treatment types and patient eligibility will severely limit the system’s effectiveness. This bill aims to correct those flaws, clearing the way for more patients to access medicine they need.

In contrast, about half the other states, accounting for the vast majority of U.S. residents, already have functioning medical marijuana programs in place.

Calls to bring Iowa’s marijuana laws closer in line with the rest of the nation are earning bipartisan support, marking an important shift in the politics of drug reform.

Both the first-time possession bill and the medical marijuana bill had nearly unanimous support from their Republican-majority committee, drawing just a single dissenting vote. That’s a strong sign these proposals have enough support to become laws, as long as party leaders allow them to move forward.

If lawmakers approve both these bills, they will make as much progress on marijuana reform in one year than other Iowa Legislatures have in the past 100 years combined.

That would be a wise move for Republicans heading into a contentious election season, given the huge public support for these ideas.

l Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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