Iowa campaign launched to reform state marijuana laws

A fully budded marijuana plant ready for trimming. (REUTERS/Rick Wilking)

DES MOINES — In recent years, the Iowa Legislature has opened the door to medical marijuana but kept it closed on attempts to ease restrictions on the possession and use of cannabis.

Brad Knott, president of Campaign for Sensible Cannabis Laws

In the current legislative session, a Democratic proposal, Senate Joint Resolution 2003, means to amend the Iowa Constitution to legalize and regulate marijuana from cultivation to use by adults 21 and older.

It didn’t go anywhere.

That has been the case in the Republican-controlled House and Senate for other attempts to decriminalize marijuana possession or legalize its use.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said his chamber has provided “access for Iowans suffering from chronic diseases to medicinal cannabis,” adding, “There is not support among Senate Republicans to legalize recreational marijuana.”

Sen. Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny

Now, a campaign has been launched to show legislators there is indeed broad support for Iowa to join other states in reforming marijuana laws.

Legislative leaders and Gov. Kim Reynolds are out of touch with changing attitudes toward marijuana, said Brad Knott, president of Campaign for Sensible Cannabis Laws.

Not only have GOP leaders stymied action on marijuana reform, but Reynolds has repeatedly voiced opposition to legalizing marijuana use, including threatening to veto such legislation.

When Illinois became the 11th state to legalize cannabis use for adults, Reynolds made clear she didn’t support legalizing recreational marijuana.

“I won’t be the governor to do that,” Reynolds told The Gazette.

Her position hasn’t changed since then.

“I believe marijuana is a gateway drug that leads to other illegal drug use and has a negative effect on our society,” Reynolds said in a statement.

“We are currently facing a crisis at our southern border with record amounts of drugs pouring into our country and infiltrating our states and communities,” the statement continued. “On top of that, our nation is facing critical worker shortages, supply chain shortages, among many other issues that we should be focused on.”

Organizing support

That leads Knott, who has worked in public policy in Iowa for decades, to say the discussion is “artificially stuck.”

“We see majority support in polling, but the governor and the leadership in the Legislature say it’s dead on arrival,” he said.

Knott points to an Iowa Poll, which found more than half of Iowans support legalizing recreational use of marijuana and three-fourths support broader uses of medical marijuana.

Along with Pete D’Alessandro, a veteran of numerous Iowa political campaigns, Knott’s effort is not to push a specific plan, “but it’s really to give people a voice because they’re not being heard right now on the issue.”

The campaign is not tied to political parties or candidates. However, Knott believes cannabis reform is an issue that resonates with voters.

By identifying support and assigning it to specific legislative districts, “we can show these legislators that they actually have support to address cannabis reform without being beat down by the Republicans or the leadership.”

Whitver may be right that Republican legislators are not currently ready to take action, but Knott is hearing there may be differences between what they say in public and what they are open to if they know voters are behind them.

“In public, they seem to be pretty much holding the line of the governor and leadership, but privately, I hear that a lot of them would move if they just got the freedom to do so from leadership,” Knott said.

Dems in favor

That’s not a problem for Democratic candidates and officeholders, according to Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, who said legalizing cannabis for adult use is “long past due.”

“Democrats support legalization and Republicans oppose legalization, (so) Iowans who want legal cannabis need to vote for Democrats this election,” he said.

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, has been a leader in the effort to reform Iowa’s marijuana laws.

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City

Cannabis prohibition has not worked, and the failure of Reynolds and Republican leaders to even discuss a wide range of cannabis policy reforms “is depressing and bad for Iowa,” Bolkcom said.

“As long as Republicans are in control of state government, nothing will change,” he said. “Cannabis reform is much more likely to come from Democrats in control of Congress than from the Iowa Republican lawmakers.”

Perception changed

Knott’s campaign doesn’t plan to get involved in this fall’s elections. Rather it is attempting to make the case that Iowa is out of step in treating cannabis reform “like the 1960s and these are the hippies.”

“We’re closer to 2060 than 1960 and the perceptions of cannabis have changed radically,” he said. “It’s seen by most people as a form of either medicine or just a mild recreation similar to alcohol, if not safer.”

According to the campaign’s website, more than half of all Americans live in states where cannabis is legal.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports 37 states, four territories and the District of Columbia allow the medical use of cannabis products.

Eighteen states, two territories and the District of Columbia have enacted law to regulate cannabis for adult non-medical use.

The benefits

Those states, Knott said, are reaping the benefits of better medical care, less crowded courts and other benefits that follow reform.

In some Iowa counties, according to the reform campaign, as many as 20 percent of arrests are for simple possession, “filling jails, jamming courts all over non-violent conduct that’s legal in most states.”

It also diverts resources from more serious crimes, such as gun violence and meth.

Those states with legal pot also are seeing higher tax revenues.

Nationwide, cannabis sales have generated $10 billion dollars in taxes. Illinois, which last year legalized cannabis use for medical purposes and adult recreational use, reaped $200 million.

Oregon, with a population of 4.3 million, had $178 million in cannabis tax revenue in 2021, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

Maine, with 1.4 million people, collected $14 million.

In Iowa, with 3.2 million people, The Motley Fool estimates cannabis tax revenue could be as much as $50 million annually.

Petition underway

The cannabis reform campaign doesn’t expect overnight change in Iowa’s laws. It will work through the campaign season to gather signatures on a petition to present to legislators and others to build its case for change, Knott said.

“We just need to move this off the dime right now,” he said. In conversations with lawmakers, lobbyists and others, the response is that nothing is happening now, so why should they risk anything by supporting change.

“We need to show them that they have room to talk about it, that there is political support behind them, that they won’t be punished for taking these steps and then let them work that out,” Knott said.

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