Despite another failed marijuana reform bill, this political consultant is on a mission to ‘free the weed’ in Iowa

Brad Knott has been trying to keep it real in Iowa. — Sid Peterson/Little Village

As February was drawing to a close, Democratic leaders from the Iowa House of Representatives held a press conference to introduce their bill to legalize cannabis in the state.

“Legalizing marijuana for adult use keeps Iowans safe, stops our tax dollars from going to neighboring states, improves the quality of life for Iowans who are suffering from chronic illnesses and it stops us from wasting state resources to unfairly punish Iowans,” Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst said.

The 78-page bill was comprehensive. It covered the strength of the cannabis people 21 and older could legally possess (up to 500 mg of THC), how the location of retail outlets would be determined (local referendums) and how it would be taxed (a 10 percent excise tax with the revenue being split between schools, mental health services and local law enforcement). The bill set up a “seed-to-sale” regulatory system under the supervision of the Alcoholic Beverage Division, and addressed criminal justice reform by expunging convictions for possession for non-violent offenders.

“It is time to do this,” Konfrst said.

Time or not, the bill never stood a chance. And the timing of its introduction suggests the Democrats understood that. Konfrst and her colleagues announced legalization was one of their top 2023 legislative priorities in September of last year, but waited until the week before all bills must be passed at both the subcommittee and committee level to introduce it. Not that it would have stood a better chance if it had been introduced earlier; Democrats in the Iowa Senate introduced a bill to legalize recreational use of marijuana three days after the legislative session started in January, and it went nowhere.

Important Republican leaders in the legislature, like Rep. Steve Holt, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, oppose legalizing recreational use of cannabis. So does Gov. Kim Reynolds.

“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 last year.

“I don’t see change coming from a big, sweeping bill,” Brad Knott told Little Village the week before House Democrats unveiled their bill. “Not with this governor, not with these Republicans in charge.”

Knott has four decades of experience in Democratic politics at the state and national-level. He’s worked for Sen. Tom Harkin, with Tom Vilsack, and served in the Clinton administration. Last year, after selling his political consulting businesses, he started the nonprofit Campaign for Sensible Cannabis Laws (CSC) to advocate for change in Iowa.

CSC is focused on getting legislators of both parties to engage in a serious debate about the state’s laws. The group’s preference is apparent in its website’s url,, but its current focus is just on getting a debate at the state capitol.

“Campaign for Sensible Cannabis Laws doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue,” Knott said about the url. “We needed something easier to remember.”

The all-volunteer organization launched last May, and had its first public forum in October.

“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,” he told the three dozen people gathered in the meeting room of a Des Moines Holiday Inn on a Saturday morning.

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

There was a brief moment at the end of the ’70s when Iowa was one of most progressive states on marijuana. In 1979, a group of bipartisan legislators, led by Democrat Bob Arnould of Davenport and Republican Dale Hibbs of Iowa City, passed a bill to allow the medical use of marijuana by people with glaucoma or undergoing treatment for cancer. On June 1, 1979, Gov. Bob Ray signed the bill, making Iowa the ninth state to approve the medical use of cannabis.

Unlike the House Democrat’s bill this year, the 1979 bill contained few details, leaving it up to the Board of Pharmacy to create the medical marijuana program. It also required the board to make sure the program was in accordance with federal law. That was impossible.

In 1972, President Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell — who would later be convicted on charges of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury for his role in Watergate — made marijuana a Schedule I drug. The National Controlled Substance Act of 1970, the cornerstone of Nixon’s “War on Drugs,” created a ranking system for all drugs. Schedule I drugs are ones the federal government has declared have no medicinal use and a high potential for addiction.

Attorney General John Mitchell

There was no way the Board of Pharmacy could create a medical marijuana program in Iowa that adhered to federal law. The program was never launched.

Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, and his administration created an even simpler-minded version of the War on Drugs with its Just Say No campaign. Republican presidents have been largely inflexible on cannabis, if only to avoid being called soft on crime. Democrats before Biden haven’t been much better.

In October, Biden announced he had ordered the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Attorney General “to review expeditiously” marijuana’s status as a Schedule I drug. At the same time, the president announced a pardon for anyone with a federal conviction for simple possession of marijuana.

But the mass pardon, which did not apply to any offense beyond simple possession, only had a very limited effect, because most convictions for possession occur at the state level and aren’t subject to presidential pardons.

At the state level in Iowa, not much happened for roughly three decades after the 1979 attempt to introduce a medical marijuana program. In 2014, the legislature did pass a bill creating a limited program to allow some patients to possess and use oil derived from cannabis. But it would be another three years before the state issued its first license to a company to grow marijuana and process it into cannabidiol. Another year would go by before the first five state-licensed dispensaries were allowed to sell it.

Iowa Cannabis Co. opened a medicinal cannabis dispensary in Iowa City in October 2021. — Paul Brennan/Little Village

In its 2022 State of the States Report, the Americans for Safe Access Foundation, a nonprofit that monitors medical cannabis programs and advocates on behalf of patients, ranked Iowa’s program among the worst in the nation, due to its limited scope and many restrictions. The report did note there have been incremental improvements in the program since it began dispensing cannabidiol in December 2018. Those incremental improvements are part of what persuaded Brad Knott to launch his campaign.

“I’d wanted to do this for a long time and the time was never right,” he said.

Knott started in politics as Reagan was reinvigorating the War on Drugs. His approach has always been practical, focusing on what is possible.

“I don’t like to get into just lost causes,” Knott explained. “It takes up too much energy, there’s too many fights that we can win.”

After a series of conversations with friends early last year, he decided the fight to reform Iowa’s marijuana laws was now winnable.

“For a long time in the ’80s and ’90s, I accepted the idea that change wasn’t viable,” Knott recalled. “But all the changes going around in the country, including in Iowa’s neighboring states, really started to change my thinking.”

It wasn’t just the increasing number of states that had legalized recreational cannabis use, or the polls showing solid majorities of Iowans favor legalization, that made the time seem right. It was also the increasingly widespread acceptance of the racist nature of the War on Drugs and the need for change as a basic matter of justice.

In 2020, the ACLU published a report documenting racial disparities in arrests for marijuana possession. Nationwide, a Black person was 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than a white person, and at the state level, a Black Iowan was 7.26 times more likely to be arrested.

After Knott decided to work on reform, he approached the Iowa Democratic Party in hopes it would provide resources for the campaign. He was well connected in Democratic circles, and felt sure he could convince party leaders a sustained campaign for reform could help candidates win in Iowa. The party turned him down, and pursued other approaches on its way to massive defeats in November.

Knott also approached a major cannabidiol dispensary in Iowa, in hopes they might provide funding for a campaign. They wished him well, but that was all.

Marijuana legality by state. Source: DISA Global Solutions

“Once the funding for a real, paid campaign went out the door, I had to switch to a self-supporting organization,” he said. “I thought about the early Obama effort during his first run for president. They created tools for people to organize on their own and do local campaigning.”

“We tried to design the website with resources to facilitate that. To help people get conversations about reform started.”

It’s an approach that appealed to Parker McNally, a student at Kirkwood Community College, who recently joined CSC as a volunteer organizer in the Iowa City area.

“With an issue such as cannabis reform, opinions can be incredibly divided, especially in a state like Iowa,” McNally said. “I think it’s important for legislators, especially from the culturally conservative parts of the state where there might still be a stigma about marijuana use, to know they will have support from constituents if they are willing to participate in a serious discussion about reform.”

McNally realizes that Iowa City isn’t a culturally conservative part of the state, but it is one that gives him a chance to meet other young people from across Iowa.

“Because it’s a college town, you get people from all over,” he said. “What I’m hoping to do is connect with people, especially from rural parts of the state, who are then willing to take the conversation back to their hometowns. The site has a lot of good resources to help them with that, including how to contact their legislators.”

Cannibidiol (or CBD, here shown in oil form) has been shown to benefit patients with epilepsy, PTSD, ALS, MS, cancer and other conditions. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

To Knott, the site’s most important feature is its online petition.

“The campaign isn’t going to get on [lawmakers’] radar until we can demonstrate we have political strength,” he said. “There’s a difference between a petition where a person signs their name, and polls where you can remain anonymous.”

Knott acknowledges that even getting a serious debate on reform is an uphill struggle, and if debate leads to anything, it will still face an opponent in Gov. Reynolds. But he still thinks change, if only incremental change, is possible.

“If you’re going to get into politics you’ve got to have a bit of optimism about the possibility of change,” Knott said. “Or you’ll just never get anything done.”

Paul Brennan is Little Village’s News Director. This article was originally published in Little Village’s March 2023 issues.