Marijuana Prohibition Hurts Taxpayers And Everyday Iowans

Posted with permission from the Winter 2019 issue of  The Prairie Progressive, Iowa’s oldest progressive newsletter.

by Joe Bolkcom

Ten states now regulate marijuana like beer and liquor. In November, Michigan voters approved legal sales of marijuana to adults. The newly elected Governors of both Minnesota and Illinois want to do the same.

Iowa should follow their lead. Marijuana prohibition hasn’t worked and has hurt taxpayers and everyday Iowans.

Despite the best efforts of the criminal justice system to protect us from this overly exaggerated threat and the hundreds of millions spent on police, courts, jails, and prisons, Iowans are not safer or healthier.

By legalizing and regulating the sale of marijuana to Iowa adults, we can refocus our criminal justice system on serious crime and expand substance abuse treatment programs.  We can also capture our state’s share of the jobs, revenue, and commerce created by regulating marijuana like recreational alcohol.

It’s time to face facts. In Iowa, marijuana is available to about anyone that seeks it out. Iowans objectively know that it’s less toxic, less addictive, and less lethal than the recreational alcohol that is available at every HyVee, Casey’s, and Kum and Go.

Iowa’s continued criminalization of marijuana imposes a heavy burden on Iowa families in the form of lost jobs, legal bills, jail time, broken families, violence, and crime. Why should we keep spending millions and millions each year to arrest, prosecute, jail, and punish thousands of Iowans for possessing a substance less harmful than legal recreational alcohol?

I’m not naïve. As with the legalization of beer and liquor, marijuana legalization will bring its own set of challenges.

One major concern is the use of marijuana by teenagers. Like smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol, using marijuana is bad for their health and social development. That’s why teen use of marijuana must be aggressively discouraged and prevented.

Other states have done this successfully. After moving from marijuana prohibition to marijuana regulation, government surveys indicate that teen marijuana use has not increased.

It is time for Iowans, and the Iowa Legislature, to take a hard, clear look at what Iowa’s marijuana prohibition has accomplished.

Despite marijuana prohibition, Iowa has a working underground market for marijuana. Just like with illegal alcohol in the 1930s, Iowa’s illegal underground marijuana market is profitable, unregulated, untaxed, and supplying its customers.

The enforcement of marijuana prohibition has been grossly unequal. Even though Black and White Iowans use marijuana at the same rate, Black Iowans are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. A law that cannot be equally enforced is blatantly unfair and erodes trust in our justice system.

Opioid epidemic! This headline, in various forms, has been splashed across the national news frequently in the last few years. Our nation indeed has serious problems with addiction to many kinds of opioids; fortunately, these problems are being treated as public health rather than criminal issues. It is fair to conclude that this smarter, more compassionate treatment of opioid abuse is related to demographics. Opioid abusers and addicts are more often white and middle or upper class. They are not four times more likely to be arrested for possession of opioids, as black Iowans are for possession of marijuana. Marijuana is also less likely than opioids to be linked to violent crime. A law that cannot be equally enforced is a bad law.

Early reports from states with legal marijuana show a decrease in opioid abuse.

The prohibition price tag is enormous. Over the decades Iowans have spent hundreds of millions on marijuana prohibition. In 2018, Iowa taxpayers paid $12 million to enforce 5,200 marijuana possession violations.

It’s time to end Iowa’s failed, unfair, costly history of marijuana prohibition.

We should replace Iowa’s criminal marijuana underground market with one that is well- regulated. Estimates project that state regulation and taxation of the legal sale of marijuana will create 4,000-7,000 new jobs across Iowa and generate between $40-$70 million in new state and local revenue.

Those new resources can help us respond with effective treatment for the abuse of marijuana, alcohol, other drugs, and tobacco. New revenue can also be used for urgently needed new investments in early, healthy childhood development and child care assistance.

As the Midwest moves forward to regulate marijuana use for adults, Iowans will need to decide if we will continue wasting money and destroying lives on failed prohibition, or if we will learn lessons from other states and capture our share of jobs, revenue, and commerce by regulating marijuana like recreational alcohol.

–Joe Bolkcom is a State Senator from Iowa City

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