Capital Clicks

Lawmakers consider reducing penalties for marijuana possession

By: - March 2, 2021 11:55 am

Iowa transportation officials are concerned about drivers who are high on marijuana they bought legally in other states. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

Iowans arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana would face less severe penalties under a bill proposed in the Iowa Senate.

Senate Study Bill 1226 would make possession of under 5 grams of marijuana a simple misdemeanor for a first offense. That would mean a maximum punishment of up to 30 days in jail and a fine of between $65 and $625. 

Currently, a first offense for possession of even small amounts of marijuana is a serious misdemeanor: up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.

Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, chairman of a subcommittee on the bill, called it a “common sense” measure. He spoke of young people who had been charged with a serious misdemeanor for possession of “one or two joints.”

“It haunted them when they went on to college, in regards to (getting) a scholarship or maybe housing,” Zaun said. 

The proposal passed subcommittee by a unanimous vote, but lobbyists and Democrat Sen. Joe Bolkcom, Iowa City, asked for more significant changes.

Bolkcom argued that marijuana convictions have “destroyed lives” by causing people to lose their jobs. He also cited racial inequities in marijuana arrests: An ACLU study found that Black people in Iowa were 7.3 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people.

“It’s a really small step compared to the problem we have in Iowa,” Bolkcom said. He supports decriminalizing marijuana and regulating the substance like alcohol.

Sen. Dan Dawson, R-Council Bluffs, responded that individuals end up in the criminal justice system for systematic reasons, not due to strict marijuana laws. Instead, he said, it is the result of “years upon years” of socioeconomic issues and lack of education.

“I certainly don’t hold the view that our marijuana laws suddenly throw someone off a train track in life that they were otherwise fine on and destroys their family,” Dawson said. 

Dawson said he supported the bill because it gives more options to parole and probation officers who deal with small possession situations.

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Reporter Katie Akin began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.

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