Bill could reduce penalties for first-time marijuana offenders in Iowa

The bill has gained support across the aisle, but some leaders would like to see further loosening of marijuana laws.


Ryan Adams

Iowa Sen. Joe Bolkcom poses for a portrait inside the Iowa State Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021 in Des Moines. Bolkcom represents the 43rd district in Johnson county.

Marco Oceguera, News Reporter

A bill in the Iowa Senate that would loosen Iowa’s marijuana penalties has bipartisan support from lawmakers.

SF 533 would lower the legal penalty for first time offenders possessing less than five grams of marijuana in Iowa to a simple misdemeanor, translating to a maximum sentence of 30 days in prison and a fine between $105 – $855. Current state laws could result in up to six months of imprisonment and $1,000 in fines.

The bill has received bipartisan support and was originally introduced by Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale. It was unanimously passed in a Senate Committee on March 3, meaning the bill can be called for a full vote on the Senate floor.

Still, with 30 other states having fully legalized or decriminalized the substance as of March 2021, some policymakers in the state are worried that the legislation does not go far enough to address the social and economic grievances brought on by prohibition.

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said that he believes the bill can go further by fully legalizing or decriminalizing the substance, which would also be beneficial for marginalized communities.

“This is a very very small step forward in addressing marijuana reform,” Bolkcom said. “Non-black and non-brown people are nearly eight times less likely as a black or a brown person to be arrested over marijuana [in Iowa].”

Bolkcom added that he thinks the state has wasted too many resources in the past in order to uphold the prohibition of marijuana.

“We’ve spent tens of millions of dollars giving people criminal records as a result of our draconian marijuana laws,” Bolkcom said.

Sen. Jeff Reichman, R-Montrose, said that while there appears to be a nationwide trend toward full marijuana legalization, he supports the current bill as it stands. He thinks it is an appropriate step forward for Iowa in the current climate, given the potential barriers that current penalties can create for first-time offenders in Iowa.

“If a young person is caught and it’s put on their record, that could ruin the rest of their lives and reduce their employment opportunities,” Reichman said.

Reichman also highlighted the potential benefits from using marijuana medicinally.

“I’d like to see it removed from the schedule A narcotics list,” Reichman added. “I would much rather see people prescribed marijuana than being hooked on opioids.”

Some cities, including Iowa City have made it a legislative priority to push for the decriminalization of marijuana.

Rod Sullivan, a member on the Johnson County Board of Supervisors, said he supports full legalization of marijuana.

“The march of progress is inevitable,” Sullivan said.

Reichman said he thinks the bill has a good chance to pass in the Republican-controlled House and be signed into law by Gov. Kim Reynolds considering the popular support within both parties.

“I think it’s probably got an even better chance over in the House, I know they have some support for it over there,” Reichman said.