Staff Columnist

Pivotal year for pot, even in prohibitionist Iowa

Listing some of the most important marijuana news from Iowa in 2020

Surveys show that Pennsylvania has some of the highest prices for medical marijuana in the nation.(Dreamstime/TNS)
Surveys show that Pennsylvania has some of the highest prices for medical marijuana in the nation.(Dreamstime/TNS)

Even in a state with some of the nation’s worst drug prohibition laws, there still was plenty of action on marijuana in 2020. Here are eight of the biggest cannabis news stories in Iowa .

Legal marijuana era begins in Illinois

For Iowans, it might be the most important marijuana policy development so far this century, but it happened in a different state. On Jan. 1, full marijuana legalization went into effect in Illinois.

Most Iowans live within easy driving distance to the other side of the Mississippi River. Six of our 25 largest cities border Illinois, where regulated and unregulated marijuana is now much more easily available. It’s likely that Iowans illegally transported large amounts of marijuana across the border for personal use last year.

Mixed messages from the Iowa caucuses

Iowa was a major focus of the political world in the months before the presidential nominating caucuses in February. Most Democratic candidates favored ending federal marijuana prohibition. They differed about broader drug policy, but that did not seem to be a major issue of the campaign for most candidates and caucusgoers.

Pete Buttigieg — the only candidate to endorse decriminalizing all drugs — and Bernie Sanders — who firmly backs legalization but also supports burdensome regulations on the industry — won Iowa’s first-in-the-nation nominating contests. Fourth-place Iowa finisher Joe Biden — probably the worst candidate in the field on drug reform, favoring mandatory treatment over legalization — went on to win the nomination and the general election.

Little movement in the Iowa Legislature

The 2020 legislative session was shortened by the pandemic and lawmakers failed to make meaningful progress, even though Iowa has one of the most impotent medical cannabis laws in the country.

The Legislature approved and Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bill to make modest improvements to the program. It included changing the limit on tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, in medicinal products, though it’s not obvious that it was much of an improvement over the status quo.

Hemp program gets go-ahead

The farm bill approved by Congress two years ago cleared the way for domestic hemp, a relative of the marijuana plant. Industrial hemp is now legal, but it is subject to extreme federal restrictions.

Federal regulators approved Iowa’s hemp plan this year and Iowa started permitting farmers to grow the crop, though portion of this year’s crop was destroyed because it had too much THC, the Des Moines Register reported.

Iowa wrestles with federal prohibition

Iowa is about the least innovative state when it comes to marijuana, but state regulators surprisingly took a novel approach to drug policy this year. Officials agreed to seek a federal exemption for the state’s medical program at the urging of Iowa cannabis advocate Carl Olsen.

Marijuana’s legal status harms patients and businesses because it restricts research and imposes higher taxes. While federal drug enforcers denied Olsen’s initial petition in November, there still may be a path for other petitions from citizens or the state government under the incoming Biden administration.

A historic election for drugs

Election Day 2020 was the biggest day for U.S. drug policy in recent memory. Four states voted to approve expansive marijuana legalization measures, and two jurisdictions voted to lift other drug restrictions.

The South Dakota referendum is of particular interest to Iowans. It’s a neighboring state, and also a state where voters overwhelmingly favor Republican candidates. If they can do it, many Iowans are wondering, why can’t we? Unlike Iowa, South Dakota has a process for citizens to petition for ballot measures.

Cities take a stand, kind of

Renewed focus on police violence against Black people this year forced some city government leaders to take a stand on police reform. Racial justice organizers in Iowa specifically list marijuana decriminalization among their demands.

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City government officials in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Iowa City all have voiced support for curbing marijuana enforcement, but none have adopted policies to actually accomplish that. Instead, they plan to advocate to legislators, who have declined to hold floor votes on bills that would give city governments more authority over marijuana possession charges.

Congress gets it right, almost

The U.S. House and Senate both passed important marijuana legislation in the lame-duck session. Unfortunately, the chambers didn’t take up the same bill.

House Democrats approved an aggressive bill to end federal prohibition and establish a regulatory structure for marijuana. The Senate passed a bipartisan bill, championed by Iowa’s Sen. Chuck Grassley, to bolster research on medical cannabis. The bills provide a good starting place for negotiations in the upcoming Congress.

The biggest Iowa marijuana stories from 2019

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

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