Staff Columnist

If Iowa were serious about drug policy, here's what it would look like

Lawmakers have some good ideas, but they sit idle at the Statehouse

Bricks of marijuana found at a Des Moines residence by the Iowa Division of Narcotics Enforcement  during a search, pict
Bricks of marijuana found at a Des Moines residence by the Iowa Division of Narcotics Enforcement during a search, pictured on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 1999. (AP Photo/The Des Moines Register, Tina Yee)

If Iowa fails to make progress toward ending the drug war this year, it won’t be for lack of ideas.

So far this legislative session, bills on illicit drugs are few but promising. Taken together, they represent a serious drug reform agenda that would reposition Iowa from one of the harshest drug enforcement states to one of the smartest.

Unfortunately, they are unlikely to pass. Republicans’ power in the Legislature has only grown since the last time they failed to enact significant change. The governor is firmly opposed to anything resembling drug legalization, and a few receptive Republicans have been unwilling to push the issue.

But if Iowa were serious about drug policy, here’s what it would look like:

House File 163 would reduce the penalty for possession of marijuana or drug paraphernalia to a civil penalty carrying a fine of $25.

Iowa’s current marijuana laws still threaten possible jail time for small possession, which is way out of line with national norms. Most states, including most of Iowa’s neighbors, have some form of decriminalization or legalization.

Senate File 83 would make several changes to criminal penalties involving marijuana.

Charges for manufacture and delivery of marijuana would be reduced, but this would not be full legalization — some pot dealers still would face felony charges. Enforcement for possession of marijuana would range from no charges at all to a simple misdemeanor.

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Senate File 204 would allow approved organizations to distribute syringes by adjusting the state’s definition of drug paraphernalia.

Syringe exchange programs provide safer supplies to people who use injection drugs, helping to prevent infections such as HIV and hepatitis C. They also connect clients to other health services, including opioid treatment for people who want to stop using drugs. While such programs exist in almost every state, Iowa is among a minority of states where they are illegal.

House File 459 would remove psilocybin and psilocin — active ingredients in psychedelic “magic mushrooms” — from the list of controlled substances in Iowa.

The movement to decriminalize shrooms is small but quickly growing. In the past two years, at least five U.S. jurisdictions have adopted policies to limit restrictions on psilocybin and other entheogenic substances. Promising research suggests psychedelic drugs can be used in mental health and substance abuse treatment.

These bills have been introduced, but they sit idle in the subcommittee stage. Except for the mushroom bill, none have Republican sponsors, which is all but a prerequisite for consideration in the GOP-controlled Statehouse.

This past Friday was the deadline for legislators to submit requests for bills from the Legislative Services Agency, so maybe more good bills are pending.

There are a few reasons drugs should be on the agenda in Iowa.

Drug reform would go a long way toward addressing the concerns of the racial justice and police accountability movements. There can be no meaningful criminal justice reform without drug policy reform. Black Lives Matter protest leaders in Iowa have listed drug enforcement, in particular marijuana, on their lists of concerns.

Additionally, Gov. Kim Reynolds repeatedly invokes deaths of despair, such as overdoses, in defending her relatively lax pandemic restrictions. Giving people access to safer supplies and support networks, like through legal syringe exchange programs, might help.

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And there’s always dollars and cents. The state and local government spend millions of dollars each year on drug enforcement. And the state deprives itself of tens of millions in potential tax revenue by refusing to legalize marijuana sales. Illinois raked in more than $100 million in pot taxes and fees in its first year.

Leaning into their fifth consecutive year with total control of both legislative chambers and the governorship, it kind of seems like Republicans have run out of priorities. They have spent considerable time this year on divisive culture war issues. It’s more about gathering fodder for their newsletters and campaign materials than actual policymaking.

By staying the same, Iowa is falling behind the rest of the nation.

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

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