Iowa Democrats Lead Charge To Legalize Marijuana

A state senator is reportedly planning to introduce three bills in favor of significant cannabis law reform.
Iowa Democrats Lead Charge To Legalize Marijuana
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Iowa Democratic Party leaders from city councilmembers to state senators are calling for the legalization of marijuana, a change that would bring the Hawkeye state’s cannabis policy in line with a growing number of its neighbors. State Sen. Joe Bolkcom, a Democrat from Iowa City, plans to introduce three separate reform bills in the upcoming weeks, according to media reports.

“It’s time to recognize that marijuana prohibition has really been a failure, not only in Iowa but across the country,” Bolkcom said. “It’s just wrecked too many people’s lives in the form of a criminal record that really sets their lives and their family’s lives in a downward cycle of poverty.”

The first of Bolkcom’s three bills would tax and regulate cannabis similar to alcohol in a plan modeled after neighboring Illinois’ marijuana legalization bid, which went into effect at the beginning of 2020. The senator said that legalizing recreational cannabis in Iowa could generate up to 5,000 new jobs in the state.

“The potential here is to create a lot of jobs and new revenue for things like mental health, substance abuse treatment, and education funding,” said Bolkcom.

The second bill would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana by adults and expunge past criminal convictions for cannabis offenses. Instead of criminal penalties, the measure would implement civil fines for marijuana possession offenses. The third bill would grant local governments the authority to decriminalize possession of small amounts of cannabis.

Dozens Of Public Officials Support Reform

Bolkcom has gathered at least 44 public officials from throughout the state, including county supervisors, city councilmembers, and state legislators, to sign on as supporters of cannabis reform. So far, only Democrats have agreed to back the effort, leaving the success of the bills in the state’s GOP-led legislature in doubt.

One of the Democrats supporting the drive to reform Iowa’s cannabis laws is Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker. She noted that Black Iowans are more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses than whites. Besides Illinois, South Dakota has legalized recreational cannabis, and reform measures are picking up steam in fellow neighboring states Wisconsin and Minnesota.

“Over half the states in the union have some form of legalized cannabis. If we follow suit here in Iowa and fully legalize marijuana, we can make progress on multiple fronts,” Walker said.

For cannabis reform to advance in Iowa, Democratic leaders will have to bring at least some of their Republican colleagues on board. Success seems unlikely, however, as long as Republican Sen. Brad Zaun is the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“I am not interested in making recreational marijuana legal in the state of Iowa. Mostly because of the negative impact it would have on our youth,” Zaun recently told local media. 

“There is no doubt that if we legalize this, there is going to be kids looking to get a hold of this,” Zaun added. “I think it’s a terrible thing for young people. Do I recognize that that is happening now? Yes. But I think if you legalize recreational marijuana, then it’s just going to open up the door, and it’s going to exasperate the problem.”

Instead, Zaun has said he would consider expanding the state’s limited medical cannabidiol program. And Democrats may be able to find common ground with him when it comes to expunging misdemeanor marijuana convictions.

“There [are] so many youth, as well as adults, that this just haunts [them] for the rest of their life when it comes to scholarships or potential job opportunities or even housing,” said Zaun.

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