Letter to the editor: Iowa should regulate marijuana like beer, wine and liquor

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Cannabis bud. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

By Joe Bolkcom, state senator, Iowa City

Ten states now regulate marijuana like alcohol.

In November, Michigan voters approved legal sales of marijuana to adults. The newly elected governors of both Minnesota and Illinois want to do the same.

Iowa should follow their lead. Marijuana prohibition hasn’t worked and has hurt taxpayers and everyday Iowans.

Despite the best efforts of the criminal justice system to protect us from this overly exaggerated threat and the hundreds of millions spent on police, courts, jails and prisons, Iowans are not safer or healthier.

By legalizing and regulating the sale of marijuana to Iowa adults, we can refocus our criminal justice system on serious crime and expand substance abuse treatment programs.

We can also capture our state’s share of the businesses, jobs, revenue and commerce created by regulating marijuana like alcohol.

It’s time to face facts. In Iowa, marijuana is available to about anyone that seeks it. Iowans objectively know that it’s less toxic, less addictive and less lethal than the alcohol that is available at every Hy-Vee, Casey’s and Kum and Go.

Iowa’s continued prohibition of marijuana imposes a heavy burden on Iowa families in the form of lost jobs, legal bills, jail time, broken families, violence and crime. Why should we keep spending millions and millions each year to arrest, prosecute, jail and punish thousands of Iowans for possessing a substance less harmful than legal alcohol?

I’m not naïve. As with the legalization of alcohol, marijuana legalization will bring its own set of challenges.

One major concern is the use of marijuana by teenagers. Like smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol, using marijuana is bad for their health and social development. That’s why, teen use of marijuana must be aggressively discouraged and prevented.

Other states have done this successfully. After moving from marijuana prohibition to marijuana regulation, government surveys have found that teen marijuana use has not increased.

It is time for Iowans, and the Iowa legislature, to take a hard, clear look at what Iowa’s marijuana prohibition has accomplished.


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Despite marijuana prohibition, Iowa has a working underground market for marijuana. Just like with illegal alcohol in the 1930s, Iowa’s illegal underground marijuana market is profitable, unregulated, untaxed and supplying its customers.

The enforcement of marijuana prohibition has been grossly unequal. Even though black and white Iowans use marijuana at the same rate, black Iowans are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. A law that cannot be equally enforced is blatantly unfair and erodes trust in our justice system.

The prohibition price tag is enormous. Over the decades Iowans have spent hundreds of millions on marijuana prohibition. In 2018, Iowa taxpayers paid $12 million to enforce 5,200 marijuana possession violations.

There’s a better way. It’s time to end Iowa’s failed, unfair, costly history of marijuana prohibition.

We should replace Iowa’s criminal marijuana underground market with one that is well regulated. Estimates are that state regulation and taxation of the legal sale of marijuana will create many new businesses and 4,000-7,000 new jobs across Iowa while generating between $40-$70 million in new state and local revenue.

Those new resources can help us respond with effective treatment for the abuse of marijuana, alcohol, other drugs and tobacco. New revenue can also be used for urgently needed new investments in early, healthy childhood development and child care assistance.

As the Midwest moves forward to regulate marijuana use for adults, Iowans will need to decide if we will continue wasting money and destroying lives on failed prohibition or if we will learn lessons from other states and capture our share of jobs, revenue and commerce by regulating marijuana like alcohol.

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