Iowa lawmakers strongly oppose cannabis despite federal legislation

Iowa lawmakers strongly oppose cannabis despite federal legislation

by Katie Akin, Iowa Capital Dispatch

The U.S. House passed a bill last week to decriminalize marijuana, expunge convictions and create a framework for the legal sale of recreational pot. But the bill’s chances in the U.S. Senate are slim – and the prospect of state-level decriminalization in Iowa is even less likely, lawmakers said.

Rep. Steven Holt, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said Iowa Republicans were not having any discussions about the decriminalization or legalization of cannabis.

“I think there needs to be a deterrent in the law, but I understand the logic of having discussions about what the appropriate penalties should be and that sort of thing,” Holt, R-Denison said. “But in terms of making marijuana legal, that is something I would never support.”

House passes MORE Act, Senate future unclear

The U.S. House passed the “Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement” (MORE) Act last week. The bill would remove marijuana from the federal list of controlled substances and would eliminate criminal penalties for manufacturing, distributing or possessing the drug. The bill would also expunge federal cannabis convictions.

Rep. Cindy Axne, a Democrat, voted in favor of the bill. Iowa’s other three members in the House, all Republicans, voted against.

Despite garnering a few Republican votes in the House, the MORE Act is unlikely to win the 10 Republican votes it needs to pass the Senate. Sen. Chuck Grassley co-sponsored a bipartisan bill to do more research on marijuana, but Grassley spokesperson Taylor Foy said the senator would not support the MORE Act.

“Removing marijuana from the controlled substances act, and legalizing the recreational use of the substance, especially before conducting the necessary research, is not a move Sen. Grassley supports,” Foy wrote in an email.

Sen. Joni Ernst did not respond to a request for comment on whether she would support the MORE Act if it is brought to a Senate vote. 

Iowa Republicans having ‘no discussions whatsoever’ about changes to marijuana law

Following the passage of the MORE Act, Cedar Rapids businesswoman Sophia Joseph and a group of activists planned to sleep on the Capitol steps until they saw similar action in Iowa. Rep. Liz Bennett, D-Cedar Rapids, spoke to demonstrators as they gathered on Tuesday.

“I think we’ve had a lot of time to see the policy has not made us safer,” Bennett told the Iowa Capital Dispatch after the event. “Criminalization of marijuana is something that has ruined people’s futures. It’s consumed billions of dollars of resources that could have been used for education, could have been used for mental health.”

The protest dissolved the first night, when Joseph said they were threatened with arrest.

“That plan didn’t work,” Joseph said, laughing. “I think it was just a desperate act.”

Instead, Joseph, 38, came inside the Capitol to speak directly with lawmakers. She said it seemed like Iowa lawmakers were not ready to consider legalization, so she pared back her pitch: expunging court records of marijuana-related crimes and decriminalizing amounts of marijuana under 56 grams.

“People are continuing to be punished, people are continuing to have harm done,” Joseph said. “Families are continuing to be separated… Let’s start to repair some of that harm done.”

But lawmakers say they have no interest in amending Iowa’s policy on cannabis. Holt said there had been “no discussion whatsoever in our caucus related to decriminalizing or making changes to marijuana laws.”

“I think it’s kind of crazy, at a time when we’re having so many mental health issues, and we know that many of these mental health issues are connected to substance abuse, that we would be talking about taking this step,” Holt said. “Because, let’s face it, when the government legalizes something, they legitimize it.”

Holt argued the current system of legal penalties discourages the use of cannabis, and that decriminalizing the drug could increase its usage in the state. 

“When people violate the law, they get arrested. When people violate the law, they pay penalties,” Holt said. “This is the law, and the law exists because we’re trying to decrease what we believe is the use of something that could be harmful.”

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, has been pushing for new marijuana policy for years – first promoting medical marijuana, then turning his sights on legalization. He said Republican opposition to decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana had been “amazingly consistent” over his time in the legislature.

“We have 92 Republicans in the Iowa General Assembly, and we don’t have a single member publicly, on-record saying they support regulating cannabis like alcohol,” Bolkcom said.

Bolkcom and Joseph said a central issue of decriminalization was addressing the racial disparities of enforcing marijuana laws. The American Civil Liberties Union found in 2020 that Black Iowans were more than seven times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white Iowans.

Holt acknowledged the state may need to “delve into” why certain people may be prosecuted more than others, and to increase education around the “harm that drugs can do.” But he said decriminalization or legalization was not the answer.

“The law is the law,” Holt said. “It exists for everybody regardless of color.”

Bolkcom also argued that public support for legalization had grown. A March Des Moines Register/Medicacom Iowa Poll found 54% of Iowans support the legalization of recreational marijuana. That’s a significant increase from 2013, when just 29% of Iowans supported legal weed.

“I think the country’s ready for it,” Bolkcom said. “The country is certainly ready to quit wasting tens of billions of dollars here in Iowa on prosecuting people for using a substance that’s less dangerous than tobacco or cigarettes.”

Holt said the legislature doesn’t “govern based on opinion polls.” He noted that neither party had pushed hard to expand medical marijuana and legalize recreational cannabis in recent sessions.

“I haven’t heard any of those discussions in several years, which I think might suggest that issue is put to bed for us for now,” Holt said.

Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Iowa Capital Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kathie Obradovich for questions: [email protected] Follow Iowa Capital Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.