Politics Notebook | Iowa Democrats announce legislation to legalize recreational marijuana

Also, the Iowa Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a bill to reinstate the death penalty in certain cases.


Jerod Ringwald

The Iowa House convenes during the first day of the 90th Iowa legislative session at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023. The house swore in Pat Grassley as speaker of the house.

Liam Halawith, Politics Editor

Iowa House Democrats unveiled their plan to legalize recreational marijuana, expand the medical marijuana program, and expunge the records of minor non-violent marijuana possession charges during a press conference on Tuesday.

If passed, Iowa would join 21 other states that have legalized recreational marijuana, including two of Iowa’s neighbors — Illinois and Missouri.

Under the proposed legislation, the sale of recreational marijuana would have a 10 percent excise tax, which would be used to fund local schools, public safety, and mental health resources.

Rep. Jennifer Konfrst, a Democrat from Windsor Heights who leads the Iowa House Democrats, argued that Iowa should reap the benefit of the sales tax revenue other states are gaining from the sale of legal marijuana.

In 2022, the Colorado Department of Revenue estimated that it collected over $325 million in sales tax revenue from the sale of recreational marijuana.

Rep. Lindsey James, a Democrat from Dubuque and the House Democrats Whip, said the bill would also set quality and safety standards for the drug sold legally in the state. Creating a safe supply of the drug that many Iowans are already using, she said.

“With strong support from Iowans and neighboring states that have already approved, it’s time to legalize marijuana for adult use,” James said during the press conference.

Additionally, the bill would expand the medical conditions to qualify for medical marijuana use. Under the new bill, anyone with a medical condition that a doctor has deemed could be treated with medical cannabis.

Finally, the bill would also expunge the records of Iowans convicted for minor non-violent marijuana possession.

According to data from the American Civil Liberties Union, Iowa ranks as the fifth worst state in racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests. The report concluded that “a Black person in Iowa is 7.3 times more likely to be arrested for possession.”

Legalizing marijuana is popular among Iowans, as a 2021 Iowa poll showing 54 percent of Iowans support the legalization of recreational marijuana.

“We’ve listened to Iowans and heard from people of all parties in all corners of the state who strongly believe it’s time to legalize marijuana,” Konfrst said. “This common-sense bill we’re introducing today isn’t about politics, it’s about people.”

Iowa Senate Republicans look to bring back the death penalty

The Iowa Senate Judiciary committee advanced a bill to reinstate the death penalty in specific circumstances after a heated debate and a split, 10-8, vote Tuesday.

Senate File 357, which was introduced by Senate President Pro Tempore Brad Zaun, would reinstate the death penalty in Iowa for offenders who have been convicted of sexual abuse, kidnapping, and pre-meditated murder of the same minor victim.

Iowa hasn’t had the death penalty since 1965 when a Democratic-controlled Iowa statehouse abolished the death penalty. Former Gov. Terry Branstad campaigned on reinstating the death penalty in 1994 but was unsuccessful at passing the legislation, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The bill faced strong opposition from Democrats and two Republicans joined with a no vote. Sen. Tony Bisignano, a Democrat from Des Moines, said he opposed the bill because it could lead to laws being passed to qualify other crimes for the death penalty in future sessions.

“That’s why the death penalty is wrong because we get to pick and choose who and why — but murder is murder,” Bisignano said. “This is the first step to falling down the stairs.”

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, a Democrat from Ames, grilled the chair of the subcommittee on the bill Sen. Julian Garrett, a Republican from Indianola, about the number of innocent people who could be executed under this law. However, Garrett would not name a number of acceptable executions of innocent people.

Bisignano pointed out that Garrett had remarked that the bill wasn’t perfect during the subcommittee but that as technology improves fewer people are wrongfully convicted.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, since 1973, 190 people have been released from death row after they were exonerated.

Garrett argued that the death penalty was a deterrent to committing a further crime like murder.

However, the National Research Council stated in a 2012 report that studies that cite a deterrent effect to the death penalty are “fundamentally flawed.”

Bisignano and other Democrats argued that even one innocent life taken by the death penalty was too many.

“The death penalty is exact, once it’s committed there’s no reverse,” Bisignano said. “That alone should frighten you, that just one person that’s executed who is innocent.”