Cannabis criminalization is failed public policy for Iowa

Senator Joe Bolkcom represents Iowa City and has been a leading voice in the state legislature for updating Iowa law on cannabis.

This March 22 marks the 50th anniversary of an important report from the Shafer Commission, a group appointed by President Richard Nixon, tasked with studying marijuana and issuing policy recommendations. The group’s findings called for the decriminalization of cannabis possession in the U.S., but alas, the suggestions went unheeded.

Fifty years later, Iowa remains one of nineteen states where you can still be locked up for minor cannabis possession.

While neighboring Illinois has legalized cannabis for adults, and Nebraska, Minnesota, and Missouri have decriminalized simple possession, folks in Iowa still face arrest, jail, and criminal branding for possessing small amounts of cannabis. First-offense possession in Iowa is punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, one of the most severe first-offense penalties in the country.

Even worse than the law itself is its unfair enforcement, with Black Iowans, according to the ACLU, more than seven times more likely to be arrested for possession as their white counterparts, despite similar use rates. What’s more troubling is that several Iowa counties show even higher racial disparity rates — making us one of the worst states in the nation for disproportionately arresting Black people for cannabis.

During my 20-plus years in the Iowa Senate, I’ve been a champion of reforming Iowa’s cannabis policies, from advocating for medical cannabis to now pushing for decriminalization and full adult-use legalization. Over the years, I’ve come to recognize the folly of prohibition, seeing that it destroys lives, wastes resources, and is unequally enforced.

Iowa citizens understand this folly too, with 54 percent now in favor of legalizing cannabis for adult use, according to a March 2021 Iowa Poll by Selzer & Co for the Des Moines Register.

Over the years, I’ve sponsored several bills to reduce various cannabis penalties, but like the Shafer Report, those proposals have gone largely ignored. This session, I’ve also joined with other legislators to propose measures to refer a state constitutional amendment on legalization to voters, but they first must pass the Iowa legislature in two consecutive sessions. They, too, have not advanced. 

While Governor Kim Reynolds and my Republican colleagues in the General Assembly refuse to engage in any meaningful debate on cannabis reform, Iowa lags behind and misses out on the revenue, jobs, and economic development that a legal adult-use cannabis market could offer our state. But even more shameful is our continued and unequal criminalization of cannabis — a bad law because of its blatant unfairness and disparate enforcement.

With our state motto proclaiming, “Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain,” how can Iowa continue arresting and jailing people for a substance safer than alcohol and tobacco? What about the rights and liberties of our Black and Brown neighbors, of our medical cannabis patients, and of the 4,355 Iowans arrested and convicted in 2020 for cannabis possession, 80 percent of which were first offenses? 

Enough is enough. Fifty years after the Shafer Commission recommended decriminalizing cannabis, it’s time Iowa stops arresting and jailing our residents for simple possession and starts embracing sensible cannabis policies that work for the people of our state.

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