4/20 in 2022: Iowa GOP leaders entertaining ‘no discussion whatsoever’ on marijuana reform

Rep. Steven Holt, staunch marijuana opponent, colorized

More than a year after an Iowa Poll showed 54 percent of Iowans favor legalizing marijuana for recreational use and 78 percent want to see the state’s Medical Cannabidiol Program expanded, Gov. Kim Reynolds and the Republicans who control the Iowa Legislature show no sign of doing either.

Earlier this month, Iowa Capital Dispatch reported Rep. Steven Holt of Dennison, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said he and his fellow Republicans aren’t even considering decriminalization or legalization.

“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 said. “But in terms of making marijuana legal, that is something I would never support.”

Asked about the popularity of legalization in the state, Holt said Iowa lawmakers don’t “govern based on opinion polls.”

Holt did say lawmakers may need to “delve into” why a 2020 study from the ACLU found Black people in Iowa were 7.26 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people. Only Montana, Kentucky, Illinois and West Virginia had worse racial disparities in arrests for possession.

Whatever “delve into” means, it doesn’t mean change the criminal status of marijuana possession, according to Holt.

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

The only time a change to the state’s marijuana laws was considered this session was on March 22, when Iowa City Democrat Sen. Joe Bolkcom introduced an amendment to a bill that increased the penalties for the manufacture and possession of heroin. Bolkcom’s amendment would have started the process of adding an amendment to the Iowa Constitution that would have state law regulate marijuana the same way alcohol is regulated, making it legal for anyone over 21 to buy and use cannabis.

“Nineteen states now regulate marijuana like recreational alcohol,” Sen. Jackie Smith, a Democrat from Sioux City, said in support of Bolkcom’s amendment. “We’re surrounded by them. And it was the voters in South Dakota that spoke during the 2020 elections to approve of marijuana use for adults. So I think giving voters a voice on this is what they want.”

South Dakota voters did approve both constitutional amendments in 2020 that legalized both the recreational and medicinal use of marijuana, as well as the growing of hemp. Republican Gov. Kristi Noemi then filed a lawsuit seeking to invalidate the amendment. In November 2021, the South Dakota Supreme Court sided with Noemi and voided the amendment. The court ruled an amendment that addressed both recreational and medicinal marijuana, as well as the status of hemp, violated the South Dakota Constitution’s requirement that amendments only address a single issue.

The South Dakota Senate passed a bill legalizing the recreational use of marijuana earlier this year, but the state’s House of Representatives let the bill die without a floor vote.

Bolkcom’s amendment was ruled “not germane” to the bill under consideration by the Iowa Senate, so no vote was taken on it.

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“Gov. Reynolds and Senate Republicans’ failure to debate or even tell us why they are opposed to reform is insulting,” Bolkcom, who is retiring at the end of this term, said on the Senate floor. “You should tell Iowans why you don’t trust them to have legal access to marijuana like tens of millions of other Americans.”

No action has been taken during the year’s session on the state medical cannabis program. Iowa has the smallest medical cannabis program in the country, and it is one of the most restrictive. Patients can only qualify for a Medical Cannabidiol Registration Card if they are diagnosed with a condition such as MS, epilepsy or Crohn’s disease. State law caps levels of THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis, in a patients’ cannabidiol supply to just 4.5 grams per each 90-day period, which many experts consider too low to be effective. There is an exemption allowing patients who are diagnosed as having a terminal illness and less than a year to live to receive larger amounts.

The number of patients participating in the program has been declining, leading to further strain on the two companies that run Iowa’s five medical cannabidiol dispensaries. MedPharm runs two dispensaries, one in Sioux City and the other in Windsor Heights, and Iowa Cannabis Co. run dispensaries in Council Bluffs, Waterloo and Iowa City. Both companies say they are losing money on their Iowa locations, and are offsetting those losses with profits made in other states.

Both companies want Iowa to add smokable marijuana to the state’s medical cannabis program. It would cost less and the companies believe it would be more appealing to patients. Iowa has the only medical cannabis program in the country that does not offer smokable marijuana.

A sample Iowa medical cannabidiol card. — Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

Although there was no action at the state level this year, there was a significant step taken at the federal level.

On April 1, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act. It removes marijuana from the list of drugs prohibited by federal law, expunges convictions for federal marijuana crimes, and creates 5 percent federal sales tax on marijuana products, the proceeds of which would go into a fund to assist communities that have been harmed by how marijuana laws have been enforced.

The MORE Act passed the House 220-204, almost entirely along party lines. Three Republicans joined Democrats in voting for it, while two Democrats joined the rest of the House Republicans in opposing it. Iowa’s lone Democrat in the House, Rep. Cindy Axne, voted for the MORE Act. All three Iowa Republicans, Rep. Ashley Hinson, Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks and Rep. Randy Feenstra voted against it.

The MORE Act has not yet been taken up by the U.S. Senate, but it is expected to face strong opposition from Republicans. A spokesperson for Sen. Chuck Grassley has said he will vote against it. Sen. Joni Ernst’s office has not replied to questions from reporters regarding her stance on the MORE Act.

The week before the MORE Act passed the House, the U.S. Senate approved the Cannabidiol and Marihuana [sic] Research Expansion Act by unanimous consent. (In federal law, the drug cannabis is still officially referred to as “marihuana.”) The bill simplifies the application process for researchers who wish to study marijuana without violating current federal law. It was co-sponsored by Democrats Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, and Republican Chuck Grassley.

Map of cannabis laws in the US
By Lokal_Profil, CC BY-SA 2.5, Link

In a written statement after the Senate approval on March 24, Grassley said the bill “is critical to better understanding the marijuana plant and its potential benefits and hazards. It will empower the FDA to analyze CBD and medical marijuana products in a safe and responsible way so that the American public can decide whether to utilize them in the future based on sound scientific data.”

Last year, the 88-year-old senator compared any effort to change federal laws before “we have robust research and fully understand the good and the bad of marijuana use” to “putting the cart before the horse.”

But for Sophia Joseph, co-founder of the Marion Alliance for Racial Equity, and others concerned about disparate impact laws criminalizing marijuana have said, the time to wait is over. After the House passed the MORE Act, Joseph and a group of like-minded activists planned a long-term protest at the Iowa State Capitol, in which they would sleep on the steps of the Capitol Building every night until the Iowa Legislature passed a bill like the MORE Act. The protest was canceled when police informed the group they would be arrested if they slept on the steps.

But Joseph did get a chance to speak to a group of state lawmakers at the Capitol.

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

Joseph proposed legislators consider decriminalizing possession of less than 56 grams of marijuana and expunging some marijuana-related convictions.

Kate Atkin of Iowa Capital Dispatch asked Iowa House Judiciary Committee Chair Steven Holt about the possibility of such reform. Holt said there’s been “no discussion whatsoever in our caucus related to decriminalizing or making changes to marijuana laws.”