Iowa bill reducing marijuana penalties faces obstacles

DES MOINES, Iowa — A proposal in the Iowa Legislature to lessen penalties for people who possess small amounts of marijuana for the first time would save the state money and reduce the disproportionate number of African-Americans in its criminal justice system, yet its chances of advancing this session are unclear.

The bill would make first offense possession of marijuana that’s 5 grams or less a simple misdemeanor instead of a serious misdemeanor, reducing jail time and court fees for those convicted of the charge.

“This would be a step in the right direction in addressing one of the very big racial disparity problems in Iowa,” said Daniel Zeno with the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa.

A 2013 report from the national ACLU shows a black person in Iowa is eight times more likely to be charged with marijuana possession than a white person. That’s even though white people uses marijuana at about the same rate as black people. The report, based on federal data, ranks Iowa the worst among all states.

Half of the 3,399 cases of marijuana possession convictions in Iowa during the budget year that ended in 2016 involved 5 grams or less, according to data from the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency. That’s a little less one-quarter ounce of marijuana. In the same period, 18 percent of people convicted for first offense marijuana possession were African Americans. Yet African Americans make up just 3.5 percent of the state’s population.

The proposal has been debated several times over the years but it hasn’t reached both chambers for a vote. The Iowa Peace Officers Association and the Iowa State Police Association registered against the bill. The Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy is registered undecided.

The lack of legislative movement comes amid a shift in the national conversation over marijuana use. San Francisco highlighted that point recently when officials there announced they’ll toss or reduce thousands of criminal convictions for marijuana dating back decades.

San Francisco’s move came after California legalized recreational use of marijuana with a 2016 ballot initiative. Iowa has not taken such action and smoking marijuana remains prohibited in the state.

Sen. Amy Sinclair, a Republican from Allerton, signed off on the marijuana possession bill during a subcommittee vote last month. She said then the measure isn’t aimed at advocating marijuana use.

“This is not about us legalizing marijuana at all. It is not,” she said. “It is about the fact that people make errors and addiction happens, and the fact that we would reduce this charge is more about allowing for that second chance and that rehabilitation.”

Still, state lawmakers have eased restrictions on medical marijuana in the form of oil, and the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill last year to manufacture and distribute the oil. Former Gov. Terry Branstad signed it into law.

Nine states and the District of Columbia have approved recreational marijuana use. Separately, 29 states, Washington, D.C., Guam and Puerto Rico allow public medical marijuana and cannabis programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

It’s unclear how these policies will be impacted by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision recently to rescind an Obama-era policy on non-interference with legal state marijuana operations.

At the Iowa statehouse, the Senate judiciary committee advanced the marijuana possession measure last week. While that means it’s eligible for a floor vote, there’s no indication it’s a priority. The same committee passed the bill last session without further action.

Sen. Brad Zaun, an Urbandale Republican who chairs the Senate judiciary committee and drafted the bill, said he doesn’t support recreational marijuana and just wants to make sure small drug use doesn’t ruin school and career opportunities.

“It’s become somewhat of an epidemic with younger people and adults who make poor decisions,” he said.
An analysis by LSA on the bill notes it would result in fewer people in prison, community-based corrections facilities and jail. The full estimate of cost savings is incomplete, but Iowa and local governments would see reductions to their daily expenses of housing individuals caught with small amounts of pot.

That could alleviate Iowa’s constrained budget, which has translated to reductions in Iowa’s corrections and judicial budgets.

Jason Karimi is a Republican activist in Iowa who supports decriminalizing marijuana. He said the legislation is a first step but he hopes the discussion over marijuana in the future removes stigma around its use.

“I would like it to be based on drug policy science and research instead of emotional fear,” he said.