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Fifteen states have legalized recreational marijuana and 27 states have decriminalized small amounts of the drug, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The Iowa Senate Judiciary Committee has approved Senate File 533, which would reduce the criminal charges from a serious misdemeanor to a simple misdemeanor for first-offense possession of 5 grams or less of marijuana. A simple misdemeanor is punishable by up to 30 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $625. A serious misdemeanor conviction carries up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $1,875.
In arguing in favor of what he called the 'very, very modest change” the bill would allow, Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said in a March 3 Judiciary Committee meeting marijuana convictions - even low-level ones - can hurt Iowans' prospects for jobs, housing and financial aid. He made several claims:
' 'In 2020, more than 4,500 people had marijuana convictions in Iowa.”
' ' ... Fifty-three percent of Iowans across political parties support marijuana reform ...”
' 'If you're a Black or brown person in Iowa, you're nearly eight times more likely to be arrested for it (marijuana possession).”
On the claim about marijuana convictions, Bolkcom cites a report the non-partisan Legislative Services Agency prepared for the senator in January. It says 4,355 people were convicted in Iowa in fiscal 2020 of marijuana possession, with more than 80 percent of those convictions for first offenses. In a subcommittee meeting March 2, Bolkcom cited the correct number of 4,355 marijuana convictions, but the number he cited March 3 was a little high.
Grade: Bolkcom was about 3 percent off in his claim, possibly rounding up in his Judiciary Committee comments. But since the difference is slight and he cited the correct number the previous day, we give him an A.
Claim 2: When Bolkcom said 53 percent of Iowans support marijuana reform, he was citing a March 2020 Iowa Poll, which asked Iowans if they support legalizing recreational marijuana. For the first time, a majority of Iowans - 53 percent - said they supported not just marijuana reform, which could be small measures like SF 533, but making recreational pot legal, the Des Moines Register reported.
The Iowa Poll has asked respondents this same question over the years, with the first such question in February 2013. That year, only 29 percent of Iowans approved of legalizing recreational marijuana.
As far as Bolkcom's claim that support for marijuana reform reached 'across political parties,” that March 2020 Iowa Poll showed 67 percent of respondents who identify as Democrats said they support legalizing marijuana, while only 37 percent of Republicans did. Still, that substantiates Bolkcom's claim. Grade: A
Claim 3: Bolkcom's claim Black or brown Iowans are nearly eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession comes from a 2020 report from the American Civil Liberties Union. That study found Black people in Iowa are 7.23 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than are white people.
Iowa ranked fifth worst in the country for racial disparities in marijuana arrests, with only Montana, Kentucky, Illinois and West Virginia having a worse disparity, the ACLU reported. On average, across the United States, a Black person is 3.64 times more likely of being arrested for marijuana, the ACLU reported.
The study, done by examining data from the FBI's Uniform Crime Report from 2010 through 2018, does not include arrest rates for Latinos because the FBI doesn't include that ethnic breakdown. Latinos make up a disproportionate share of incarcerated Iowans, according to a 2018 report from the Prison Policy Initiative.
Bolkcom's conclusion Latino or Hispanic Iowans also face disparities with marijuana arrests has been documented in other states.
A New York Times investigation published in 2018 found Black people in New York City were arrested eight times more for low-level marijuana charges than their white peers. The rate for Hispanic people was five times that for non-Hispanic white people.
Grade: We give Bolkcom a B. Latinos likely face disparities in Iowa with regard to marijuana arrests, but he doesn't have the data to back that part of the claim up. He also rounded up the disparity found for Black Iowans.
Bolkcom has been pushing for marijuana reform for years, giving him a lot of time to hone his talking points. Averaging his two As and a B, he gets an A overall.
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This Fact Checker was researched and written by Erin Jordan of The Gazette.