Staff Columnist

More than one way to advance marijuana in Iowa Legislature in 2021

When your state has some of the nation's worst drug prohibition laws, there's plenty of room for progress

A flowering cannabis plant. REUTERS/Chris Wattie/File Photo
A flowering cannabis plant. REUTERS/Chris Wattie/File Photo

Political support for full marijuana legalization in Iowa has never been greater.

Five state senators and 16 state representatives, all Democrats, are supporting a campaign to legalize marijuana and regulate it like alcohol. They’re joined by more than a dozen local elected officials across the state, including members of the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids city councils, and the Johnson and Linn boards of supervisors.

The case for fully legal marijuana in Iowa is well established, but it’s worth briefly revisiting.

Drug enforcement costs the state government tens of millions of dollars each year and is shown to be disproportionately targeted at people of color. Marijuana is much less harmful than alcohol and tobacco. Prohibition deprives Iowans of business opportunities and deprives the state government of millions in potential revenue.

Perhaps most importantly, Iowans support aggressive reform. The portion of Iowans who favor full legalization has grown steadily for years, and topped 50 percent for the first time, according to a Des Moines Register poll last year.

However, Iowans also voted last year to uphold legislative control by Republicans, who oppose full legalization. Iowans back legal weed, but it apparently is not a top-of-mind issue — so far, we haven’t been willing to toss out lawmakers who stand in the way.

Fortunately, for common-sense Iowans, potential compromises abound. When your state has some of the nation’s worst drug prohibition laws, there’s plenty of room for progress short of full legalization.

State Sen. Joe Bolkcom — the Iowa Legislature’s leader at introducing comprehensive marijuana legislation, if not passing it — plans to introduce at least three bills this year to remove restrictions on cannabis use by adults.

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Bolkcom’s big bill, to establish a retail marijuana program like 15 other states have, should get serious consideration. A Senate committee vote on such a bill, putting lawmakers on record, would be an important development. Still, it’s probably a non-starter for the House and the governor.

Democrats also plan to introduce a bill to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana possession, like most states already have done, and expunge Iowans’ criminal records. And there will be another bill to allow local governments to decriminalize marijuana possession. Those are more likely to get a thoughtful hearing in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

There’s also a wild-card option, which would give Iowans what they want but also provide political cover for conservative policymakers: Lawmakers could propose a constitutional amendment legalizing marijuana, and send it to a statewide referendum for approval.

Marijuana is undefeated at the ballot box in recent history, including a ballot measure last year to legalize marijuana in neighboring South Dakota.

Iowa citizens can’t petition for amendments as in some other states; the Legislature has to take the lead. Republicans could make clear they don’t support legalization but still support the amendment as a way to let voters decide.

Any of these options, from full legalization to restrained decriminalization, is better than the status quo, which leaves Iowa falling behind our Midwestern peers.

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

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