While Iowans are increasingly flocking across the Mississippi River to obtain legal marijuana at Illinois dispensaries, Iowa’s legislative majority seems stuck in a “Reefer Madness” mindset when it comes to marijuana legalization.
The growing disconnect between Iowa voters and their state government may put more pressure on Republican legislators over their anti-legalization stances, which is quickly putting Iowa into outlier status as one of the most restrictive in the nation. Or it may push some Iowans to simply leave the state, as recreational and medical marijuana becomes a key quality of life consideration of where to live.
Where is marijuana legalized now? Didn’t Iowa sort of legalize it?
As of 2022, 18 states had fully legalized marijuana, meaning those over the age of 21 are free to purchase, possess, and privately consume the drug. Several other states have decriminalized the drug, meaning penalties are less severe.
Others allow for medicinal use. Iowa has a very limited version of this law, passed a few years ago and updated since. But because it’s so limited, two of the state’s five dispensaries catering to the state’s small percentage of users have shuttered, meaning even fewer options for those using the drug in non-smokeable forms to control anxiety, PTSD, or chronic pain.
Despite a majority of Iowans saying they want legislators to legalize cannabis—54% last year, up from just 29% in 2013—the majority of Republicans who hold a trifecta in state government refuse to consider it.
“Gov. Reynolds and Senate Republicans’ failure to debate or even tell us why they are opposed to reform is insulting,” said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, a Democrat from Iowa City, after his amendment to legalize cannabis was ruled “not germane” last month. “You should tell Iowans why you don’t trust them to have legal access to marijuana like tens of millions of other Americans.”
But in the past year, Iowans gained a new legal option to get their fix: Neighboring Illinois legalized recreational cannabis in 2019—making it a drivable option for Iowans looking to partake.
Said one Reddit commenter on the topic recently: “It’s OK, GOP. We can just keep sending millions of dollars to Illinois instead.”
So Iowans can buy cannabis legally in Illinois? Where?
Illinois law allows out-of-state residents like Iowans to legally purchase a certain amount per day of flower, edibles, vape cartridges, and other cannabis products.
While the vast majority of Illinois’ recreational dispensaries are Chicago-adjacent, a few sit along the Mississippi River, an easy drive for most Eastern Iowans. Here are the closest recreational ones:
- The Dispensary East Dubuque, 709 IL-35 N, East Dubuque
- Verilife Cannabis Dispensary Galena, 115 Perry St., Galena
- The Dispensary Fulton, 1801 16th Ave., Fulton
- Nature’s Treatment of Illinois, 973 Tech Drive, Milan
- Nature’s Treatment Galesburg, 735 W. Main St., Galesburg
- Windy City Cannabis, 518 W. Jackson St., Macomb
Basically, when in Rome, you can smoke like the Romans, though you can’t buy as much as they can, per Illinois law. And you’re legally barred from taking it back across state lines, though enforcement on that is up to law enforcement here—and some of them have publicly said stopping Iowans from buying marijuana in Illinois isn’t a priority.
“When they legalized marijuana in Illinois, I made the statement that we would not be watching the bridges, we would not have checkpoints,” said Scott County Sheriff Tim Lane last year. “And we have not done that.”
How does that work with an Iowa driver’s license?
You’re still allowed to buy and consume, and you can only consume on private property.
However, if you’re driving your purchases back into Iowa, be aware that’s still illegal. And if you’re caught doing that, even if it’s a small amount and even if it’s your first time, you can get up to six months in jail and/or a fine of $1,000—one of the most draconian punishments for first-time marijuana possession in the country.
And you’re especially targeted if you’re non-white. Despite white Americans using marijuana at higher rates than Black Americans (53.6% to 45.3% in 2018), Black Iowans are stopped, frisked, and punished at a rate nearly 8 times higher than white cannabis users, leading to one of the highest racial disparities in the nation.
In Dubuque County, across the river from The Dispensary East Dubuque, Illinois, that disparity in cannabis arrests is even higher, with Black residents being arrested at a rate 13.2 times higher than whites, according to the ACLU.
Are the dispensaries making money? Is the state?
Everybody’s making money.
Illinois dispensaries made $3.2 million on the first day of legalization and nearly $11 million in the first week. By the end of 2020, they had sold over $750 million, sending $205 million back to the state, which is distributing the money to its general fund, law enforcement, nonprofits, and criminal justice re-entry programs.
By November 2021, the state had surpassed $1 billion in cannabis sales, with dispensaries selling more than $100 million per month on average. In May of 2021, the state recorded more tax revenue from marijuana than from alcohol for the first time.
East Dubuque city officials were initially reluctant to allow more than one dispensary in town. But business has been doing so well for the city coffers that the East Dubuque City Council in December agreed to allow two more dispensaries within city limits, should businesses choose to locate there.
The ability for the city to tax dispensaries on 3% of sales probably had something to do with it.
“You have no idea how many people are going in and out of there every day,” East Dubuque Mayor Randy Degenhardt told KWWL. “And he does a good job—we have had no trouble out there, no police calls or anything.”
How much of that money is from Iowans?
A good chunk of that money at Mississippi River-adjacent dispensaries is likely from Iowans: Around a third of all recreational sales are from out-of-state residents, according to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation.
The Dispensary in the East Dubuque location opened in May of 2021, situated just minutes from the Mississippi River bridge into Iowa and steps from Wisconsin, neither of which have legalized cannabis. Its very first four customers were all from out of state, and two of those were Iowans, Manager Joshua Perkins told the Dubuque Telegraph-Herald.
“The out-of-state interest is definitely there,” Perkins said.
Jeff Soenksen, The Dispensary’s principal officer, estimated their sales at the two border dispensaries were half in-state, half out-of-state. But he told Iowa Starting Line he’s not sure how many of those out-of-staters are Iowans because he’s legally prohibited from recording that information by Illinois—only whether they’re residents or not.
“At Fulton, I would presume most are Iowans,” Soenksen said. “East Dubuque sees a mix of Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.”
At Nature’s Treatment of Illinois in Milan, which opened on the first day of legal sales on Jan. 1, 2020, business has remained busy.
“From the minute we open to the minute we close, there’s always a customer or patient here,” Patrick Adamson, an agent in charge at Nature’s Treatment, told KWQC.
So why don’t we legalize it here?
Republicans who control the governor’s office, as well as the state Senate and House, refuse to consider any legalization, even after Illinois’ two years of success.
“In terms of making marijuana legal, that is something I would never support,” said Rep. Steven Holt, chair of the House Judiciary Committee and a Republican from Denison. “This is the law, and the law exists because we’re trying to decrease what we believe is the use of something that could be harmful.”
As the number of Iowans who support legalization increases, however, legislators like Holt may face increasing pressure to act, particularly as the MORE Act at the federal level gains traction and as more states bordering Iowa jump on the legalization bandwagon—including Republican-dominated ones.
South Dakota’s governor and GOP-dominated legislature is fighting off a legalization ballot effort that voters approved in 2020, though advocates for legalization say they’ll just try again. Missouri is attempting its own legislative legalization effort, as an effort to get a similar measure in front of voters this November has pushed Republicans to act.
“My Cannabis Freedom Act has given tens of thousands of Missourians assurance that their voice is being heard by lawmakers,” Rep. Ron Hicks of Missouri, a Republican, admitted last month.
Deep-blue Illinois going “green” is one thing. If GOP-dominated border states can also prove cannabis legalization works—and rake in billions in new tax revenue, largely from Iowans—Iowa’s legislators may soon have no choice.
By Amie Rivers
Iowa Starting Line is part of an independent news network and focuses on how state and national decisions impact Iowans’ daily lives. We rely on your financial support to keep our stories free for all to read. You can contribute to us here. Also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.