More states are poised to embrace legal marijuana sales by 2025 — but not Iowa

Lee Rood
Des Moines Register

Second in an occasional series.

Minnesota is among eight states with a “strong likelihood” of legalizing recreational marijuana by 2025.

Nebraska and Kansas are among 10 others that are considered emerging markets for medical marijuana over the next four years, a mid-year 2021 industry report released in June shows.

If the projections bear out, 96% of Americans will live in states with some form of legal cannabis, according to New Frontier Data, a Washington, D.C.-based company that specializes in cannabis industry data, analytics and technology.

“It’s now a matter of when and how, not if,” said Kasey Morrissey, senior director of industry analytics for the company.

Marijuana plants

Public support for legal marijuana has climbed in a mix of polls, and “canna-tourism” has ramped up in many states where recreational use is legal. Yet it’s unlikely Iowa will expand cannabis sales unless the federal government moves to do so nationally, state leaders say.

Gov. Kim Reynolds has said several times she does not support legalizing recreational marijuana use, and so far, none of her 26 Republican fellow governors has endorsed legalization, either, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML.

While efforts to reduce penalties for some minor marijuana crimes have advanced in the Iowa Legislature, proposed legislation this year to legalize recreational pot didn’t get a whiff of support in the Republican-led Iowa House and Senate.

Despite that, state Rep. Jeff Shipley, a second-term Republican from Fairfield, said he thinks attitudes about legalization are softening somewhat, especially among younger Iowa lawmakers.

Jeff Shipley

He thinks that if legalizing recreational marijuana for adults were put on the statewide ballot, a majority of Iowans would support it, and that it’s hypocritical for the state to keep pot illegal, but not alcohol, which is more harmful.

Still, the 32-year-old from Fairfield said it's unlikely Republicans would take action unless something happens on the federal level.

Anti-marijuana groups remain active at the Iowa Statehouse, and few residents are pushing for the legalization of recreational cannabis use in the state, as some Iowans did when legislators backed medical marijuana in 2014, he said.

More:Gov. Kim Reynolds signs bill to change THC cap for Iowa's medical marijuana program

One advocate sees Iowa legalization as 'a decade away'

State Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, one of the state’s most liberal politicians, has fought for years to reform possession laws and expand cannabis sales in Iowa. He said he thinks legalizing recreational pot in the state is “probably a decade away.”

A bill that would have reduced the penalty for minor pot possession to a simple misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days in jail or fines of $105 to $855, died in the Legislature's 2021 session, despite having bipartisan support in the Iowa Senate.

Opinion:Cannabis reform? It's the right time for full federal legalization to help economy and people

In other states and at the U.S. Capitol, however, the politics surrounding decriminalization and legalization are taking center stage. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who plans to advance far-reaching federal legislation this year, has been encouraging Democrats to make cannabis reform an issue in upcoming state and federal elections.

The issue also could play a part in the 2022 gubernatorial race in Iowa.

State Sen. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo, the first to announce his candidacy in the governor’s race, and state Auditor Rob Sand, another Democrat who also is considering a bid, both have said they support legalizing marijuana and expanding the state's highly regulated low-THC medical marijuana program.

In January, more than 200 state and local elected officials in Iowa, all Democrats, joined the call for decriminalization of marijuana and legalized recreational use in the state.

More:Des Moines to draft ordinance making marijuana possession a civil offense, then pause until there are changes in state or federal law

In two Des Moines Register Iowa Polls taken last year and in March, a majority of Iowans said they supported marijuana reforms, including legalizing recreational pot. More than three-quarters said they supported expanding medical marijuana use in the state.

But there was a distinct partisan divide. Among Republicans in this year's poll, 31% favored legalizing pot for recreational use, compared to 71% of Democrats and 59% of political independents.

Will green of money overcome red, blue political split?

Despite that chasm, industry analysts say legalization is becoming less of a blue or red issue.

In at least 10 states this year, Republican lawmakers helped craft and sponsor legislation to legalize cannabis.

In North Dakota, where activist groups are gathering signatures to put recreational marijuana to a vote, a Republican House member drafted legislation to legalize adult use. It eventually died in the Senate.

So far, 18 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized recreational marijuana, with six enacting laws through their legislatures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Iowa doesn’t have a statewide citizen-led initiative or referendum process, so any action on the state level would have to happen in the Statehouse.

Marijuana leaf held in two fingers, with cannabis plants behind.

Shipley said he would at least like to see marijuana decriminalized in the state. It's not that he approves of its use. As he has gotten older, Shipley said, he has more concerns about young people being exposed to high-THC cannabis and developing addictions. 

Marijuana use can lead to development of problem use, known as a marijuana use disorder, which takes the form of addiction in severe cases, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. People who begin using marijuana before age 18 are more likely to develop marijuana use disorder than adults, according to the institute.

But as a Christian conservative, Shipley said, he also believes the state should be more willing to give people second chances and help those who are suffering from addiction.

He said he also thinks the criminalization of drugs like marijuana has led to animosity between police, people of color and younger people in general.

“There’s a perception out there that they will find anything they can to bust me with,” he said. “That was the drug-war mentality, and it created an adversarial relationship. I think we need to attack the mentality that we can’t trust law enforcement.”

Push for federal legislation meets Senate roadblock

Members of the U.S. House reintroduced a bill in May that would strike marijuana from the list of federally controlled substances. It won House passage last year but failed to  gain traction in the Senate.

The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2021 also would eliminate some criminal penalties tied to pot sales, expunge criminal records tied to possession, and create social equity programs focused on repairing damage to those most impacted by the drug war.

A companion bill Schumer is expected to introduce in the Senate faces an uncertain future, however.  A similar bill failed to advance last year. Both of Iowa's Republican senators, Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, are among those who have said they will oppose it.

Without more Republican support in the Senate, the legislation is short of the 60 votes it needs to advance, according to a late June analysis by Politico.

It quoted Republican Whip John Thune of South Dakota, where medical marijuana sales began July 1 and the courts are weighing the fate of recreational sales, as saying that how Congress wants to deal with cannabis legalization nationally is still an open question — though the issue is gaining momentum.

“Medical’s getting big — the recreational not as big yet, but it's growing — and there'll be more initiatives on the ballot,” he said. “It's an area that's still evolving, and our country's views on it are evolving."

In Washington, some want to see the Senate pass the SAFE Banking Act, which already has passed the House. The bill would create protections under federal law for financial institutions that provide financial services to legitimate cannabis-related businesses, essentially allowing states to continue making their own decisions on cannabis policy without fear of federal repercussions.

More:Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas questions federal marijuana prohibition in IRS case

Whatever happens, the market for marijuana, both legal and illegal, is thriving. In its market report this summer, New Frontier Data said the fact that sales have “continuously surpassed estimates” affirms that “existing demand for cannabis is deeply entrenched in the U.S."

Currently, 239 million Americans, or 72%, live in states with legal marijuana use in some form.

Is broad federal legislation still needed?

As states have rolled out their own unique laws legalizing medical and recreational marijuana, they’ve found a mix of factors can greatly help or hinder their revenue as well as how much business still goes to the illegal market. Regulatory hoops, the number of licenses granted, taxes, pricing and growing climate can all play parts.

Likewise, states have varied widely in how they've tried to address equity issues, and how best to try to right wrongs to those most disproportionately affected by the country's 50-year-old drug war.

Given the plethora of laws states have already adopted, even supporters of recreational marijuana disagree on whether federal legislation is needed.

More:Senate marijuana bill: Schumer, Democrats to introduce bill to federally decriminalize cannabis

Sara Gullickson, CEO of Arizona-based Cannabis Business Advisors, said she thinks the cannabis industry would hit a setback if Congress moved forward with federal legislation authorizing and regulating the sale of recreational marijuana.

National legislation, she said, would likely introduce a mountain of new regulations on top of those already established in states where sales are legal.

But she does hope Congress moves to decriminalize possession and to ease banking restrictions on the industry. That’s considered critical for its growth.

Millions in tax revenue at stake, but sizable job gains unlikely

In examining the effects of legalization in several states based on a variety of factors — from economics to substance abuse to crime and road safety — researchers at the Cato Institute this year found only one area where the effects were not exaggerated by either supporters or opponents of legal cannabis use.

“The notable exception is tax revenue, which has exceeded some expectations,” the report by the libertarian-leaning nonprofit concluded. 

More:With marijuana still largely illegal in Iowa, residents flock to Illinois, where legal sales are breaking records

While some states such as Massachusetts and Nevada have seen increases in employment because of the legal marijuana industry, others such as Illinois, Maine and Vermont have experienced decreases, researchers said. 

In the end, they concluded: “Marijuana production and commerce do employ many thousands of people, but the employment gains seen in the wake of legalization are still modest compared with the overall size of each state’s workforce.”

The legal marijuana industry is growing rapidly, but Iowa has been slow to buy in to the trend.

In Iowa, other researchers have estimated that the state government would reap millions in tax revenue if legislators legalized recreational use of small amounts of marijuana by adults, or expanded the state’s medical marijuana market.

More:2 of Iowa's 5 medical marijuana dispensaries have closed, and it's not yet clear why

The Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan tax research nonprofit, estimated Iowa would probably gain around $50 million in excise taxes alone if it followed other states’ lead.

Examining states’ collections on a per capita basis, Dave Swenson, an Iowa State University economist, estimated Iowa could gain $63.8 million if it imposed a relatively low tax on cannabis, like Massachusetts, or as much as $273.4 million if it had a higher tax, like Washington state's.

Though the government would collect more in revenue, however, it’s unlikely legalizing recreational marijuana use would have a wider economic impact, Swenson said.

“While the tax rates are much higher on marijuana products than other taxable goods, marijuana sales detract from other purchases of consumer items. For existing residents, these sales would reflect a shift in spending,” Swenson said.

“It is also possible that Iowa, were marijuana sales legalized, could be a destination marijuana-sales state for bordering states that had not liberalized their laws,” he said. “The economy-boosting effects of these two considerations, however, are likely not significant in an economy that has close to $200 billion in GDP.”

Researcher foresees social benefits from decriminalization

Do the benefits of legalizing marijuana use outweigh the drawbacks? The debate continues, though most of the nation's population has some degree of access to legal weed.

Legalization also would shift a significant portion of black market spending to the legal market, he said.

“The assumption is that fear of legal penalties prevents the full satisfaction of in-state demand, so it would be expected that total demand for marijuana products would grow considerably,” he said.

In addition, Swenson said the social benefits of decriminalization in Iowa would shift law enforcement, judicial and corrections resources, as well as create more opportunities for employment and social engagement for thousands of people who previously have been penalized for illegal use.

“It may also result in more resources dedicated to preventing and treating substance abuse, so those increased consequences offset, to a small degree, the social gains,” he said.

More:Iowa Poll: Over half favor legalizing recreational pot; over three-fourths favor expanding medical marijuana

While the pitches by industry analysts to states about legal cannabis have emphasized the revenue to be generated, those projections are unlikely to compel President Joe Biden, who has said he supports decriminalization but has not fully embraced legalization.

John Hudak, deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution, said Biden is more likely to support future efforts to decriminalize marijuana possession and remove cannabis from federal enforcement if it brings more social equity to the fore.

“Amplifying the importance of cannabis reform for communities of color and issues of justice and opportunity is particularly powerful to a president whose election hinged on support and turnout from communities of color,” Hudak said.

What the polls show

In April, a Pew Research poll of Americans showed 60% of respondents supported unrestricted legalization and another 31% supported legalization for medical use only. Only 8% of the poll's respondents said marijuana should be illegal.

But there’s division by party on recreational sales: 71% of Democrats supported them, while only 31% of Republicans did.

There's also a divide by age. Only 32% of Americans 75 and older supported adult-use cannabis reform. A majority of every other age cohort under 75 supported legalization.

From 2000 to 2019, the share of Americans saying marijuana should be legal more than doubled, according to the Pew Research Poll.

In the Des Moines Register Iowa Poll published in March, 54% of all respondents said they favored legalizing recreational marijuana.

More than three-quarters, or 78%, said they favored expanding the state’s small low-THC medical cannabis program, which allows sales of non-smokable products to people with ailments such as chronic pain, seizures and cancer. 

Lee Rood's Reader's Watchdog column helps Iowans get answers and accountability from public officials, the justice system, businesses and nonprofits. Reach her at, at 515-284-8549, on Twitter at @leerood or on Facebook at