Neighboring states' marijuana laws show just how bad Iowa is

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This year is set to be another big one for drug reform in the United States. Not so in Iowa, where politicians with old-timey views on science and personal freedom insist on preserving strict prohibition.

Take a look at the six states bordering Iowa, ranging from staunchly conservative to moderately liberal, and you can see how embarrassing the situation is. Iowa already has some of the region’s harshest criminal penalties for marijuana possession, and there’s a good chance we will look even worse by comparison at the end of 2020.

In our seven-state cohort, only three states — Iowa, South Dakota and Wisconsin — still impose potential jail time for first-time convictions for small amounts of marijuana, according to information compiled by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Iowa’s company in this shameful category is fleeting.

Last week, the South Dakota secretary of state validated a petition to put marijuana legalization up for a statewide vote.

South Dakotans are expected to vote in November on a constitutional amendment allowing adults to possess and cultivate small amounts of marijuana, and a separate measure to legalize marijuana for medical use.

Yes, that South Dakota — the deep-red state where Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by a two-to-one margin, where voters haven’t sent a Democratic majority to either chamber of the state legislature since the early 1990s.

To be fair, the state’s conservative politicians don’t get credit for pushing marijuana reform. Unlike Iowa, South Dakota has a legal structure for citizen-led voter initiatives. State officials say the legalization petition had more than 36,000 valid signatures, an impressive feat in a state with fewer than 1 million people.

Perhaps South Dakota voters will reject the marijuana proposals, but at least they get a say. You can’t say the same for Iowa, where about half the populace favors legalizing recreational marijuana, according to a Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll published a year ago.

Progress is afoot in Wisconsin, too. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, elected in 2018, supports marijuana reform. Legislative Republicans recently introduced a medical marijuana bill, while Democrats have a proposal to decriminalize simple possession.

Minnesota’s freshman Gov. Tim Walz supports full legalization. Members of his administration and some legislative leaders have met with Colorado officials to seek guidance on how to craft their program, the Star Tribune reported last October.

Even in Missouri, where Republicans control the legislature and governor’s office, marijuana decriminalization is under consideration. A bill last year to ease penalties on possession earned unanimous approval from a bipartisan committee.

Illinois started legal marijuana sales this month, a first for the Midwest. While citizens there still suffer from overregulation and government mismanagement, their law is infinitely more sensible than Iowa’s misguided enforcement and harsh penalties.

I never thought I would look to the statist hellhole of Illinois as the region’s shining beacon of freedom, but here we are.

For the most jarring comparison among Iowa’s neighbors, consider Nebraska, which is almost as reliably conservative as South Dakota. The Cornhusker State has fared just fine under marijuana decriminalization for more than 40 years.

Carrying less than an ounce of marijuana in Nebraska is punishable by a $300 ticket, and no jail time. Even second and third offenses in Nebraska are only punishable by up to 7 days in jail and a fine of $500. For reference, Iowa law calls for as much as a 2-year sentence and $6,250 fine for third-offense possession.

Fortunately, local enforcement and prosecution decisions mean few Iowans are punished to the full extent of the law. Nevertheless, our badly outdated model of drug criminalization is dangerous. It diverts resources from legitimate public concerns, and leads to distrust between citizens and law enforcement.

The best Iowans can realistically hope for this year is a modestly expanded medical cannabis program. If we’re lucky, lawmakers might take up a vote to slightly reduce possession penalties, but that’s no sure thing. There is basically zero chance the current state leadership will ever consider a robust marijuana legalization plan.

When it comes to drug prohibition, Iowa may be No. 1 in the Midwest. That’s nothing to be proud of.

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