116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
State Sen. Joe Bolkcom wasn’t trying to become the marijuana guy of Iowa politics when he went to Des Moines more than 20 years ago.
That might be how he’s remembered nonetheless. The Iowa City Democrat, who recently announced he won’t seek re-election next year, has a long record of progressive political work, but it’s marijuana policy where he has been the leader. It’s been a slow and sometimes lonely campaign.
It’s not that Bolkcom himself indulges. He’s never told me one way or the other, but I doubt it. He sometimes says “marijuana cigarette” instead of “joint.” He once referred to 5 grams as enough marijuana for one joint, but in fact that is enough for maybe 15 joints.
For Bolkcom, it’s always been about sound public policy.
“If we have a law that can’t be fairly enforced, it's a bad law.“
Bolkcom was first elected to an Iowa City state Senate seat, one of the bluest in the state, in 1998. He took up the issue of medical cannabis about a decade ago on behalf of constituents. For most of that time, he’s been narrowly focused on medical cannabis, not recreational.
“She couldn't eat or hold her head up,” Bolkcom told me in a recent interview, recalling one cancer patient he heard from. “They went to Colorado. In the hotel room she took a toke off a marijuana cigarette and suddenly she can eat dinner and she feels better. Those kinds of stories drove my interest.”
It wasn’t until 2019 — five years after a couple other states started selling legal weed — that Bolkcom first introduced a bill to institute a retail marijuana program in Iowa. He proposed regulating it under the existing liquor bureaucracy and pitched it as an economic growth plan.
Until then, Bolkcom had worried that pushing for full legalization would compromise his efforts on medical cannabis, which is seen by critics as a sneaky end run to recreational pot.
“Had I moved earlier on regulating marijuana like alcohol, I would have undermined my ability to be in the conversation of helping people with chronic conditions. I essentially made a decision to continue to push as hard as I could for a better medical cannabis program,” Bolkcom said.
What eventually forced Bolkcom to embrace legalization was the racial justice movement of the past several years. Iowa is infamous as one of the worst states in the nation for disproportionately arresting Black people for marijuana.
“I think [the law] is used in a way that unfortunately screws with Black and brown people a lot. If we have a law that can’t be fairly enforced, it's a bad law,” Bolkcom said.
By 2019, it was clear that marijuana freedom would be a winning issue. The same year, the Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll showed for the first time that support for recreational marijuana was equal to opposition among Iowans. The legalization crowd has since overtaken the prohibitionists.
Bolkcom’s first legal marijuana bill went nowhere in the Legislature and attracted no co-sponsors but it nevertheless was an important milestone in Iowa’s long road to sensible drug policy. It offered a starting point for what a post-prohibition Iowa might look like. This year, a similar bill introduced by Bolkcom drew nine Democratic co-sponsors but still no Republicans.
Politics is political. Bolkcom might be the most vocal marijuana advocate in the Iowa Legislature’s history and yet in 2017 he voted against the law that created Iowa’s medical cannabis program.
Lawmakers worked through the night before adjournment that year on a compromise bill to authorize for the first time a limited system of cannabidiol manufacturers and dispensaries to treat Iowans with a few select conditions. It might have been the least effective, most restrictive medical cannabis program ever conceived in the United States.
But it was a start. The program has only grown since, as I predicted at the time.
Bolkcom acknowledges his “no” was a protest vote against a bill that was on its way to passing. If he’d been the 26th “yes,” he would have backed it.
“The bill comes back to us, we've been up all night. It's an important policy, but we have no opportunity to change one word of it because members are looking absolutely gassed and they're just ready to vote on it and go home. We got a dump and run with that bill,” Bolkcom said.
Behind the scenes, Bolkcom said he has good working relationships with GOP members such as Sen. Brad Zaun of Urbandale, who has been one of the most sensible Republican lawmakers on marijuana, helping push medical cannabis forward and sponsoring legislation to reduce penalties for possession.
Zaun, a conservative with a small libertarian streak, had kind words for one of his most liberal colleagues: “His retirement will create a big void in the Iowa Senate. Personally, I will miss Joe as he has become a good friend,” Zaun wrote to me in an email.
In a parallel universe where legal marijuana caught on sooner nationally or Iowa stayed purple instead of trending red for the past decade, Bolkcom might have been the architect of the Midwest’s first functioning legal marijuana market. In the universe we live in, though, Democratic legislative majorities never lined up with a politically opportune time to end the scourge of pot criminalization.
I asked Bolkcom where marijuana reform in Iowa goes from here. He didn’t have any big ideas.
He did offer an interesting observation, though. MedPharm, the biggest player in Iowa’s medical cannabis market, has a partnership with University of Iowa sports. You can hear marijuana commercials during Hawkeye football games on the radio, something that was unthinkable just five years ago.
I suggested, only kind of joking, that recruiting a few beloved sports coaches and broadcasters as marijuana policy advocates would have a bigger impact than Bolkcom’s decade of legislative work. He didn’t disagree.
Bolkcom helped put marijuana on the agenda in Iowa, but workable laws likely remain a long way off.
“Not everyone supports it as much as constituents here in Iowa City. I've had the luxury to be able to be out front on this issue when my colleagues who might be privately supportive aren't able to be publicly supportive,” Bolkcom said.
(319) 339-3156; firstname.lastname@example.org