Iowa Democrats are done waiting for the GOP-controlled legislature to act on marijuana reform. So on Tuesday, a group of legislators announced that they will soon be introducing a constitutional amendment to let voters decide on the issue of regulating cannabis “in a way similar to the way we regulate the use of alcohol by Iowans over the age of 21.”
Sens. Joe Bolkcom (D), Janet Petersen (D) and Sarah Trone Garriott (D) unveiled the plan during a virtual briefing, emphasizing that since conventional, legislative measures to end prohibition have so far stalled in the state, a new approach is necessary.
The effort will center on putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot. But in order to do so, the General Assembly will need to pass the proposal twice during two separate sessions, meaning the soonest voters will get to weigh in would be during the November 2024 election. It also means that the Republican-controlled legislature will need to get on board with the idea of a referendum on the issue.
Bolkcom told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on Tuesday that the plan is to pass the measure during the 100-day session that starts next month and then again in 2023. Asked whether he expects his GOP colleagues to resist a constitutional amendment on the issue as they have with standalone proposals, the senator said it’s a “jump ball” and “we’re trying to ascertain that at the moment.”
Legislative leaders and the governor have maintained staunch opposition to reform efforts in the past, which is partly the reason that even Iowa’s medical cannabis program is especially limited compared to other states, Bolkom said.
He also noted that some GOP members are pushing to enact constitutional amendments that would put issues related to gun control and reproductive rights on the ballot.
“So as we thought about how to make progress on marijuana regulation, we thought maybe there would be some interest in putting this before voters,” the senator said. “You don’t need to decide. You can let the voters decide if you can’t.”
But Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brad Zaun (R) told the Quad-City Times that he has “no intention” of moving any cannabis legalization legislation through his panel.
“Gimmicks like a constitutional amendment on recreational marijuana do a better job of illustrating the lack of ideas Senate Democrats have to solve the problems of Iowans than any response I have,” he said.
But that’s not going to stop reform supporters from working to build up pressure for change.
While the text of the marijuana proposal is still being finalized, Bolkom said that supporters “want to keep it short,” with a basic regulatory framework that doesn’t delve too far into specifics.
The plan at this stage is to incorporate some provisions on taxing cannabis sales and dictating which agency will regulate the program, but it will mostly be “boilerplate language” generally calling for adult-use legalization.
“We just think it’s time to give voters a voice in the conversation. They’ve been left out,” he said.
Petersen said at Tuesday’s briefing that “Iowans are ready to join the growing list of states that are regulating marijuana for adult use.”
“Iowans are tired of filling our prisons with nonviolent offenders, traumatizing families with separation and taking away opportunities from far too many young adults for something that is legal in nearly half the states in our country,” the senator said. “It’s time to give Iowans the freedom to vote on something the majority of them support instead of letting a handful of politicians hold Iowans back.”
Trone Garriott stressed that, despite polling showing public support for reform, “the Republican-dominated legislature has failed to act, let alone even hold a public hearing so that we can talk about the issue.”
“Meanwhile the world is changing around us and we are getting left behind,” she said. “Unlike many our neighboring states, the citizens of Iowa do not have the ability to put this issue on the ballot as a referendum. We think it’s time Iowans got to have a voice and a vote in this matter.”
A bill to decriminalize cannabis possession did clear an Iowa Senate subcommittee earlier this year, but it hasn’t advanced since March. Another Senate panel separately approved a bill to reduce medical cannabis patient registration costs in February.
Meanwhile, activists in the state have been seeking a federal exemption for its medical marijuana program—imploring regulators to reach out to federal agencies with the request as required under legislation enacted last year.
In August, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) assured Iowa officials that academic institutions in the state aren’t at risk of losing agency grants and contracts even if they permit patients to use medical marijuana on their properties in compliance with state law.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) rejected a request for such an exemption last year.