Pubdate: Mon, 19 Nov 2012
Source: Des Moines Register (IA)
Copyright: 2012 The Des Moines Register
Author: Sharyn Jackson


2 States' Votes to OK Recreational Pot Give New Energy to Movement
Here, but Legislative Hurdles Loom Large

The morning after Election Day, as news sunk in that voters in two
states had legalized recreational marijuana, state Rep. Bruce Hunter
was having conversations with constituents on their front lawns about
the prospect of Iowa doing the same.

"I was out picking up signs, and I ran into several people that wanted
to talk about possibly legalizing marijuana and what we could do," he

In the coming weeks, Hunter says he hopes to begin the process when he
pre-introduces a bill that would decriminalize marijuana in Iowa. In
states such as Nebraska and Minnesota that have done so, those caught
in possession of small amounts of marijuana wouldn't necessarily be
sentenced to jail, as long as they weren't dealing the drug.

Hunter does not have high hopes for the bill. "I'm sure it would be
facing a very stiff veto," he said.

As the nation watched voters in Colorado and Washington state approve
ballot initiatives legalizing recreational marijuana use, some
legislators and activists have been working to change Iowa's law,
among the strictest pot possession laws in the country. The success in
those two states has inspired their movement.

"It's helping the cause," said Steve Morrow, president of the Iowa
chapter of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of
Marijuana Laws. "It's like a two-fisted punch. Two shots heard around
the world." For legislators who risk their careers to advocate for
marijuana law reform, said Morrow, "now they have a weapon. They have
Washington and Colorado."

Gov. Terry Branstad has vowed to veto bills legalizing marijuana for
any use, and bills in both the House and Senate that would legalize
medical marijuana have languished. "As with past efforts to legalize
marijuana, House Republicans are unlikely to support the measure and
do not believe it is a priority," Josie Albrecht, an aide to House
Speaker Kraig Paulsen, wrote in an email.

Hunter, a Democrat, introduced a medical marijuana bill in early 2012,
and he plans to reintroduce it next year. And the year after that, and
the year after that, if necessary. "In Iowa, we kind of like to work
in baby steps," Hunter said.

In the state Senate, Sen. Joe Bolkcom will seek co-sponsors in January
for a bill to legalize medical marijuana, his second effort. He said
it takes courage for legislators to support such an initiative. "This
is still somewhat stigmatized. Privately, you can talk to people,
they're supportive of it. But they're nervous about a vote somehow
being used against them when they run for re-election. I think Iowans
are ahead of their elected officials on this issue."

Eventually, Hunter would like to introduce a bill legalizing marijuana
completely, "somewhere down the line, if the water feels right." The
goal, he said, is to ease the impact of Iowa's drug laws on the
justice system. In 2011, there were more than 9,000 arrests for drug
abuse violations, almost three-quarters of which involved marijuana.
So far this year, nearly 300 Iowans have been imprisoned for
marijuana-related offenses.

"We've got a prison population that is made up of a lot of people that
haven't really committed a violent crime, other than smoking some
marijuana," Hunter said. "It doesn't do anybody any good. We're not
fixing a drug problem by sending people to jail with a bunch of other
drug problems."

Iowa has some of the harshest marijuana laws in the country -
possession of any amount is a misdemeanor carrying a mandatory minimum
sentence of six months in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000. In
Colorado, for instance, before the vote legalizing marijuana, a first
offense garnered just 15 days of jail time and a $100 fine.

Currently 18 states and Washington, D.C., allow medical marijuana,
something Iowans say they favor. In a 2010 Iowa Poll published in The
Des Moines Register, 64 percent of Iowans said they supported medical
marijuana. But less than a third of Iowans said they favored
legalizing the drug for recreational purposes.

Josh Montgomery isn't banking on recreational pot just yet. Instead,
the 20-year-old Iowa State University student is hoping to get three
voter initiatives on the ballot by 2014 - one that would decriminalize
marijuana possession, one that would legalize medical marijuana, and
one that would allow hemp production on Iowa's farms.

Montgomery heads ISU's campus chapter of NORML, and with the help of a
couple hundred students, he's trying to get 600,000 petition
signatures to put pressure on state legislators to get these measures
to the ballot.

Montgomery said his group has gotten nothing but support from the
university. He even got approval from the licensing office to make a
NORML T-shirt with the ISU logo; the red shirt features Cy the
Cardinal on the front, and a pot leaf on the back. "It's blowing our
minds," Montgomery said.

The sophomore engineering major became impassioned about the cause
last year, when a friend, another engineering student, lost his
financial aid after being convicted of possessing less than an ounce
of marijuana, Montgomery said. Because his friend couldn't find
another source of funding, he couldn't return to school this year.

"It was traumatizing," Montgomery said. "I had to hold him in my arms
and tell him it was OK, and I had no clue. And I kept thinking, 'It
could have been me.' "

Under federal law, students convicted of drug offenses lose federal
and institutional funding for at least one year. And there are
university sanctions on top of that. At both the University of Iowa
and ISU, the sanctions depend on the circumstances, said the schools'
respective deans of students. If there is evidence that a student is
dealing or selling drugs, the student could face suspension or
expulsion. If Iowa law were to change, said Michelle Boettcher, ISU's
director of judicial affairs, "I'm sure we would do some planning. But
we haven't had any specific conversations."

Montgomery said when he heard about the election results in Colorado
and Washington, he was moved to tears. "I cried like a little girl,"
he said. "The thought of saying marijuana is legal in two states, it
has the connotation that Santa Claus is real. It's so hard to believe."

As Montgomery looks to Colorado and Washington as inspiration for
Iowa's future, Peter Komendowski, president of Partnership for a
Drug-Free Iowa, is also looking to those states as examples of drug
policy gone wrong.

"One of the joys of having 50 states in our democracy is that we can
learn from their mistakes," Komendowski said. "Seeing this happening
in other states is galvanizing the leadership in Iowa to think: not in
our neighborhood, not in our state."

A major impact of legalization, according to Komendowski, is that his
group's job protecting children from the dangers of drug use becomes
more difficult. Opponents to marijuana legalization say the drug
affects memory and concentration, leading to lower productivity,
motivation and even IQ. Proponents argue that the drug is safer than
alcohol, especially on college campuses where binge drinking is
prevalent, and that it can ease symptoms for patients with a variety
of ailments.

"What we're doing," said Komendowski, "is sending a mixed message to
our kids that some drugs are OK and some aren't OK. If you know kids,
it's extremely confusing to them if you're not on message."

Steven Lukan, the director of the Governor's Office of Drug Control
Policy, is also looking at Colorado - as a source of interstate drug
trafficking. According to the office's 2013 Iowa Drug Control Report,
law enforcement officials have reported increased shipments into Iowa
of marijuana grown in states that have legalized it in some form,
including Colorado.

Lukan said some of the Colorado-grown marijuana has a higher content
of THC - the chemical that determines marijuana's potency - than other

"A good analogy I was given is that back in the '60s, smoking a joint
was like drinking three beers. You achieved a quick high that didn't
stick around as long," Lukan said. "Today smoking a joint can be like
drinking a keg."

Colorado's legalization, said Lukan, "will likely mean more traffic
into Iowa."

But supporters of the Colorado vote say a more likely outcome is an
influx of cannabis-friendly tourists looking for a Rocky Mountain high.

"It will definitely increase the tourism revenue in some areas of
Colorado," said Morgan Fox, communications manager for the Marijuana
Policy Project. "An ancillary benefit is that it will decrease the
illicit drug markets in other states where it's not legal. Of course,
they won't be able to take it back home, but it gives people an option."

For now, traveling to Colorado or Washington is Iowans' only legal
option for using marijuana. But Morrow, the Iowa NORML president, is
hopeful that could change.

"Iowa has been a leader on gay marriage and interracial marriage,"
Morrow said. "Our image of Hicksville is long gone, and we shouldn't
hang on to it. I think it might happen sooner than we think."



Approved for recreation:

On Election Day, two states - Washington and Colorado - approved the
use of recreational marijuana.

Approved for medication: 18 states and Washington, D.C., have approved
the use of marijuana with a doctor's prescription.

Decriminalized: 14 states have lessened penalties for possessing
small amounts of pot.


The pro- and anti-marijuana camps each have studies and statements
from medical and government officials to back up their cases. Here are
some of the arguments they make in support of their positions.

Proponents say:

Pot is safer and less addictive than alcohol and cigarettes.

There are medical benefits; it eases pain and curbs

Regulating its sale would provide tax revenue for the

Sending fewer people to jail would ease crowded court and prison

Young people who made a mistake wouldn't have criminal

Marijuana use should be a personal choice.

Opponents say:

Legalization, even for medicinal purposes, undercuts the message that
drugs are dangerous.

Smoking causes cancer, whether it's marijuana or tobacco.

Long-term use lowers IQ and lessens motivation among young

It affects memory, coordination, perception and learning.

The long-lasting effects could affect workplace productivity or
driving well after use.

Marijuana is a gateway drug that will lead to harder drug use.
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