116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
DES MOINES - State legislators are looking at lowering the penalty for possessing small amounts of marijuana to a simple misdemeanor on a first offense, but Republicans say legalization is not an option.
Under a bill that cleared a Senate Judiciary subcommittee Tuesday on a 3-0 vote, a first-offense possession of 5 grams or less of marijuana in Iowa would become a simple misdemeanor punishable by 30 days in jail and a fine of between $105 and $855. Currently, the offense is a serious misdemeanor carrying up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
Senate Study Bill 1226 would not change any penalties for violations after a first offense.
'This is a small step. To me, this is common sense,” said Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee who led the subcommittee discussion. 'I believe if there is no intent to deliver, that people make mistakes and it shouldn't haunt you for the rest of your life.”
He said he knew friends of his kids who lost scholarships and had problems getting housing and jobs due to marijuana convictions.
Iowans who testified during the meeting supported proposals to enact a constitutional amendment for keeping and growing marijuana plants, or advocated tying a first-time conviction to substance-abuse treatment, or expressed concerns over the 'rising potency” of marijuana products available in 15 other states and Washington, D.C., where recreational marijuana is now legal - including border states of Illinois and South Dakota.
A Democratic lawmaker said such legalization would be a better option - to decriminalize pot and regulate it like alcohol.
'I appreciate that Republicans continue to think that we should have prohibition on marijuana,” said subcommittee member Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, who lamented that lawmakers were taking a 'really small step” with SSB 1226.
'This policy is hurting Iowans in dramatic fashion,” said Bolkcom, noting there were 4,355 marijuana convictions in 2020 that affected Iowans' ability to provide for themselves and their families and achieve their potential due to Iowa's 'harsh” penalties.
'There have been tens of thousands of Iowa families that have been negatively affected by a marijuana conviction,” he said, noting that enforcement is 'biased” against minority Iowans.
However, subcommittee member Sen. Dan Dawson, R-Council Bluffs, a state law enforcement officer, refuted Bolkcom's contentions, saying, 'I don't believe our marijuana law destroys people's lives.”
'I would strongly push back and say that by the time someone is actually arrested by law enforcement, there are probably a variety of things within that individual's life that put them in contact with law enforcement. That's why I always get concerned when we look at the criminal justice system to try and compensate for years upon years of socio-economic issues or education issues,” said Dawson. 'I certainly don't hold the view that our marijuana laws suddenly throws someone off a train track in life they were otherwise fine on and destroys their family.”
Dawson said he supported a lower marijuana penalty as a way to give parole and probation officers more options.
Similar bills have been passed by the Iowa Senate in previous sessions, but stalled in the Iowa House. SSB 1226 would need to clear the full Senate Judiciary Committee this week to remain eligible for consideration under the Legislature's 'funnel” deadlines.
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