Advocates, candidates gather to discuss cannabis legalization — ‘This is a winning issue’

Little Village

Both the setting of the meeting, a hotel conference room in Des Moines on a Saturday morning, and the average age of attendees, over 50, were standard for Iowa politics. The subject matter, however, wasn’t.

“This is probably the first public event since at least the 1970s in Iowa for anybody to have a serious conversation about reforming the cannabis laws,” Brad Knott told the three dozen people gathered in the Holiday Inn meeting room on Oct. 15 for the Campaign for Sensible Cannabis Laws‘ “Free the Weed Iowa” event.

Knott, who has worked in Democratic politics both in Iowa and Washington D.C. for more than 40 years, organized the nonprofit organization earlier this year.

“I’ve reached a point in my career where I figured, what the hell?” Knott said. “I’ve wanted to do this for a long time and the time was never right.”

There was a brief window in the ’70s when it seemed like cannabis decriminalization in Iowa might happen. Many aspects of the Nixon administration, including the War on Drugs, were being reconsidered post-Watergate. In 1979, Rep. Robert Arnold, a Scott County Democrat, introduced bills in the Iowa House that would have created a medical cannabis program and decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. Both failed to advance.

“But after that, of course, Reagan got elected and they renewed the War on Drugs,” Knott said.

President Ronald Reagan delivers remarks on Sept. 20, 1984 during a campaign rally at the Gerald Ford Museum in Cedar Rapids. — White House photo

The Iowa Legislature finally passed a bill creating a limited medical cannabis program in 2014. But despite the efforts of some lawmakers, such as Iowa City’s Sen. Joe Bolkcom, changes to the law regarding recreational use of marijuana have not gotten serious consideration.

“I feel the world has turned,” Knott said. “Just look around us. All the states are decriminalizing, legalizing, [expanding] medical programs.”

Brad Knott speaking at the Campaign for Sensible Cannabis Laws’ “Free the Weed Iowa” conference in Des Moines, Oct. 15, 2022. — Paul Brennan/Little Village

The world may have turned, and polling shows popular support for legalizing cannabis has grown from less than a third of Iowans in 2013 to a solid majority in 2021, but Gov. Kim Reynolds and Republican leaders in the state legislature remain inflexible.

“I believe marijuana is a gateway drug that leads to other illegal drug use and has a negative effect on our society,” Reynolds told the Des Moines Register earlier this year, explaining her opposition to legalizing, or even decriminalizing, marijuana use.

“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,” Rep. Steven Holt, a Dennison Republican and chair of the Iowa House Judiciary Committee, said during this year’s legislative session. “But in terms of making marijuana legal, that is something I would never support.”

In 2018, there was a proposal to reduce the criminal penalties for first-time possession of less than five grams of marijuana, but Republicans on the Iowa House Judiciary Committee rejected the proposal before it could be discussed on the House floor.

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“I’ve been in politics a long time,” Knott said. “I don’t like to get into just lost causes. It takes up too much energy, there’s too many fights that we can win. I think we’re gonna win this fight eventually.”

But first, proponents of changing the law need to “show elected leaders there is no penalty for supporting cannabis reform.”

That happens by people openly discussing and debating reform, and rejecting the idea that there should be any stigma attached to the recreational use of marijuana, Knott said.

“We’re not doing a good enough job on that. I want you to be determined to get a debate on cannabis reform in the Iowa Legislature, the courthouses and the homes of Iowans,” he told conference attendees.

There are signs of movement this year. Legalization of marijuana was on the list of the Iowa House Democrats top four legislative priorities announced in September. And the top two Democrats on the ballot in November, Mike Franken and Deidre DeJear, became the first major party candidates for Senate and the governorship in Iowa history to campaign on legalizing marijuana.

DeJear even spoke at the Oct. 15 conference.

“Right now, we see a great deal of challenges facing our communities all over the state — rural, urban, suburban,” she said. “We see economic challenges, we see education challenges, access to health care and mental health care.”

What Iowans don’t see are leaders providing viable solutions, DeJear said.

“We’ve accepted that status quo for far too long. We need leadership who’s willing to go the extra mile for us.”

DeJear pointed out that legalized cannabis is not just popular in opinion polls, it’s also popular with Iowans who go to Illinois, where it is legal, and spent $26 million there last year. That $26 million wasn’t spent on shoe shopping, DeJear likes to say.

Deidre DeJear at the Campaign for Sensible Cannabis Laws’ “Free the Weed Iowa” conference in Des Moines, Oct. 15, 2022. — Paul Brennan/Little Village

DeJear said it’s clear cannabis can help Iowans with certain health challenges “because we’ve seen the research, because we respect the science,” but it can also help increase state revenue and pay for important priorities.

“I don’t want to overtax this industry, but it is going to be taxed,” she said. “And the taxes can go to fund things like mental healthcare in our state, education, a paid parental leave program — so that when people have children they’re not afraid of losing their jobs — water quality and environmental sustainability. Those are the four buckets where I would like to see taxes on this industry go towards helping and advancing our community.”

“The other part, and this is a lesson learned that we’ve seen all over the country … we can’t allow the big guys, the real estate developers or the bankers to come in and own this industry in our state,” she said. “There has to be a pathway for small businesses throughout the state of Iowa to have access to this industry.”

DeJear concluded, “I’m of the firm idea right now that our state is not short of vision. We just need leadership that’s willing to turn the lights on, leadership who’s willing to come and meet people where they are. Even when the discussions are challenging.”

Those discussions are what Knott said he is hoping to foster with the Campaign for Sensible Cannabis Reform. The website and an online petition launched in May. So far, Knott is funding the effort out of his own pocket.

Knott said that before the public launch, he approached “one of the big medical cannabis providers in the state” about possibly helping to fund the campaign. The initial reaction was enthusiastic, but they later decided against it.

“So, then I went to the Democratic Party and my friends there,” Knott recalled. “I said, this is a winning issue. We have research, you hear it anecdotally. You’re getting your butts kicked around the state, maybe you ought to try a new issue.”

“Well, six months later, they didn’t want to talk anymore.”

Regardless of lack of institutional support, Knott said he’s determined to continue working to build an “organized, demonstrated base of support for cannabis reform” by getting Iowans across the state to openly discuss their support for the idea.

“It’s not just about passing a law in the state house. That’s the end game,” he explained. “The beginning game is conversations like this.”