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Bill to Reduce Marijuana Possession Penalties Heads to Iowa Senate

African-Americans make up 3.5 percent of Iowa's population, but accounted for 18 percent of people convicted for first time possession of marijuana in 2016. (Derek Goulet/Flickr)
African-Americans make up 3.5 percent of Iowa's population, but accounted for 18 percent of people convicted for first time possession of marijuana in 2016. (Derek Goulet/Flickr)
February 19, 2018

DES MOINES, Iowa – Supporters of a bill that would reduce the penalties for first time marijuana possession say it would save Iowans money and reduce the disproportionate number of African-Americans in the criminal justice system.

Iowa's first offense penalty for even a single marijuana joint is one of the toughest in the country – up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Daniel Zeno, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, says the state's harsh penalties hit minority and low-income communities the hardest.

"The data shows that Iowa is ranked the worst in the country for racial disparities in terms of marijuana arrests,” he point out. “Eighteen percent of people convicted for first-time possession were African-American, even though African-Americans make up 3.5 percent of the population in Iowa."

Senate File 432 would reduce penalties for possession of five grams of marijuana or less to a simple misdemeanor, with no more than 30 days in jail and a maximum $625 fine.

The Iowa Peace Officers and State Police associations oppose the bill.

So far, the Governor's Office of Drug Control Policy hasn't taken a stand.

Other bills to reduce penalties for first-time marijuana possession have been introduced in previous years without success.

Zeno says the state's current, severe penalties keep youths out of college and cause Iowans to lose job opportunities.

"People make mistakes,” he points out. “We want to give people who make that one-time mistake – that kid who gets caught with a small amount of marijuana – we want to give them a second chance. We also know that this will address a huge racial disparity problem."

And Democratic legislator Mary Wolfe says local jurisdictions end up shouldering the costs when people are put in jail for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

"You know you arrest them, you put them in jail overnight, they get out – I mean, what is the point?” she questions. “So, I do think that if we did reduce it down to where we're looking at a fine, it would save local governments a lot of money, a lot of time, a lot of resources that could be better aimed at dealing with more serious criminal offenses."

Wolfe adds in 2016, half of the 3,400 possession convictions in Iowa involved five grams of marijuana or less.

Roz Brown, Public News Service - IA