4/20 in 2021: Iowans have come around to cannabis, but state and federal lawmakers are straying from their pot promises

Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

The latest Iowa Poll from the Des Moines Register and Mediacom revealed several areas in which public opinion conflicts with state legislators’ priorities, from passing an anti-abortion amendment to the Iowa Constitution (opposed by 58 percent of respondents) to shortening early voting periods (52 percent were against), to slashing unemployment benefits for laid-off workers (of which a whopping 75 percent disapproved).

But nowhere was this discrepancy more prominent than on the issue of cannabis. In fact, as the Gazette‘s Adam Sullivan pointed out, medical cannabis is more popular with Iowans than Donald Trump is with Iowa Republicans: 78 percent are in favor of expanding the state’s medical cannabis program. Fifty-four percent said they favor legalizing cannabis for recreational use — a significant increase from the 2013 Iowa Poll, when less than one-third of respondents expressed support for such a move.

Rather than meet this data with proposals to make medical cannabis more accessible; prepare the state to eventually legalize recreational cannabis, as Michigan, Illinois and 15 other states have done; or decriminalize cannabis possession, in light of Iowa’s status as one of the worst in the nation for racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests, Republican legislators advanced a bill this week targeting the sale of glass pipes.

Though an Iowa court ruled that unused glass pipes are not considered drug paraphernalia, some Republican lawmakers insist businesses that sell such products are flouting the law.

“These devices, I’ve said from day one, are not being sold as glass art — that is, functionally, a lie. It is actually offensive to say it,” Sen. Dan Dawson, a Council Bluffs Republican and Senate sponsor of SF 363, told a House subcommittee. “They are being sold as paraphernalia. They’re not being sold as incense burners. They’re not being sold [for] tobacco.”

Dawson claimed without evidence that sales of glass pipes are increasing, and that the pipes are primarily used for drugs like meth, heroin and cocaine — a notion that drew plenty of online derision.

The Senate bill, passed earlier this year and now advancing through the House, would require sellers of glass and metal pipes to obtain a $1,500-a-year annual permit, and levy a 40 percent tax on sales of the pipes. (A House subcommittee has proposed lowering the tax rate to 20 percent.) Revenue from the tax would ostensibly go towards combatting drug abuse in the state.

“As Iowa, understandably, aims to address its methamphetamine problem via a tax that is intended to directly affect a specific consumer’s pocket, it will inadvertently take money from the pockets of Iowans that are not part of the problem looking to be addressed, crush small businesses and eliminate 1,000s of jobs,” reads a successful petition launched by a group of Iowa business owners seeking to kill the glass-tax bill, among them the owners of Iowa City’s The Konnexion.

Cannabis bud. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

It’s easy to forget that just a year ago, Iowa was pursuing a forward-thinking approach to cannabis. State cannabis regulators — with the approval of the Legislature and governor via the passage of HF 2589 in September 2020 — began steps to legitimize the state’s medical cannabis program in federal law by applying for an exception to the Controlled Substances Act.

“But nothing has happened since last September,” Carl Olsen, the founder of Iowans for Medical Marijuana, wrote in a piece for Bleeding Heartland on April 12. “The department tells me it is waiting for the Biden Administration to do something. The Biden Administration says it is too busy to deal with the situation. We should be doing what we can do right now, not waiting for something we don’t even know will happen.”

After Gov. Reynolds failed to respond to his inquiries, Olsen said, he filed paperwork in Polk County District Court to sue Reynolds, claiming she has a constitutional duty to follow through on the federal exemption process. He’s happy to help the state out with the application, he adds.

Federal cannabis reform, of course, would better clear a path for Iowa’s own laws to expand. And while public opinion and even the most mainstream of Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, have expressed support for the cannabis industry, decriminalization and the expungement of marijuana-related charges, both President Biden and Vice President Harris have said they’re too overwhelmed with the COVID-19 pandemic and other issues to act right now. On a higher note, the House is expected to pass the bipartisan SAFE Banking Act this month, which would protect banks that provide loans or other services to cannabis-based businesses in legal states from federal penalties. If passed in both houses of Congress and signed by President Biden, the bill would be a boon for cannabis retailers, all of whom must currently operate on a cash-only basis.


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Olsen’s hoping that, even if his lawsuit fails, it will compel the state to release documents that illuminate their thoughts on cannabis reform.

As it stands, Iowa’s medical marijuana program is one of the most restrictive in the country, capping levels of THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis, in a patients’ cannabidiol supply to just 4.5 grams per each 90-day period, although there is an exemption for patients who are diagnosed as having a terminal illness and less than a year to live.

In addition to tight state regulations, the federal government’s classification of marijuana as an illegal schedule 1 narcotic prevents or discourages many healthcare providers from recommending cannabis treatment to patients, and schools risk federal funding if they administer cannabis as medication. The DEA defines schedule 1 narcotics as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

Even if patients manage to secure a Medical Cannabidiol Registration Card for a condition such as MS, epilepsy or Crohn’s disease, they may be hundreds of miles away from the nearest dispensary — Iowa law limits the state to only five cannabis dispensaries, and currently only three are open. Still, with just 5,000 Iowans with active medical cannabis cards, the dispensaries located in Waterloo, Windsor Heights and Sioux City struggle to stay viable.

“People are suffering now with the [federal] tax penalty and burdens on schools and health care facilities,” Olsen told Adam Sullivan. “Why should we make them wait when there’s something we can do immediately?”

From a criminal justice standpoint, Iowa took a small step in the right direction last month by advancing SSB 1226, a bill that would make the possession of under five grams of marijuana a simple misdemeanor for a first offense, with a maximum punishment of 30 days in jail and a $625 fine — down from six months in jail and up to a $1,000 fine. Democratic Sen. Joe Bolkcom of Iowa City, a vocal advocate for cannabis decriminalization and alcohol-like regulation, said the bill doesn’t go far enough — that marijuana charges have “destroyed lives,” disproportionately Black lives.

Sen. Dawson, the Republican glass-tax bill sponsor, disagreed.

“I certainly don’t hold the view that our marijuana laws suddenly throw someone off a train track in life that they were otherwise fine on and destroys their family,” he said.

Still, he supported the bill in subcommittee, saying it serves parole and probation officers.

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