DES MOINES — Some Democratic state lawmakers for years have proposed legalizing marijuana in Iowa, just as 19 other states have already done.
They have been stopped in those efforts by the Republican majorities who set the state’s legislative agenda and a Republican governor who has said she does not support legalizing marijuana.
So statehouse Democrats, with public opinion on their side, went back to the drawing board and have devised a new proposal: let Iowans decide.
Roughly a handful of Senate Democrats on Tuesday held a news conference to announce they will introduce legislation that would propose an amendment to the Iowa Constitution that would make marijuana legal for recreational use and regulated like alcohol.
Amendments to the Iowa Constitution must be passed in two legislative sessions separated by an election, and then must be approved by a public vote.
More than half of Iowans, 54%, support legalizing marijuana for recreational use, according to a Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll from March.
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“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,” said Sen. Janet Petersen, a Democrat from Des Moines.
Public support in Iowa for legal marijuana has climbed exponentially in recent years: it was at just 29% in a 2013 Iowa Poll.
“This has become a mainstream issue. The majority of Iowans support this,” said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, a Democrat from Iowa City. “The Republicans are in the minority on this. That said, we need their help to move this constitutional amendment to voters so they can have their voices heard.”
That does not sound likely. Such a proposal likely would move through the judiciary committee, and the man who chairs that committee in the Senate, Sen. Brad Zaun, a Republican from Urbandale, said that will not happen.
“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,” Zaun said in an emailed statement. “I have no intentions of advancing this bill out of the judiciary committee.”
Statehouse Republicans have in recent years approved two proposed amendments to the state constitution advancing conservative causes. One, which would add to the Iowa Constitution gun rights language that is stronger even than the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, will go before Iowa voters in the November 2022 general election.
The other proposed constitutional amendment recently approved by statehouse Republicans would declare the Iowa Constitution does not guarantee a right to an abortion. The earliest it could appear on Iowans’ ballots would be 2024.
The 2022 session of the Iowa Legislature begins January 10.
Iowa has a medical marijuana program, although advocates contend it is too weak and does not allow patients to access cannabis-based medication that is strong enough to help address some more serious illnesses.