CEDAR RAPIDS — A Cedar Rapids City Council candidate says Iowa’s second-largest city should be a statewide leader by decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Jorel Robinson, 32, proposes refocusing criminal justice resources to “encourage police not to prioritize simple marijuana possession arrests.” He also wants a ballot initiative to treat simple marijuana possession not as a criminal penalty but as a civil one with “small fines for small amounts” to be set by the council in coordination with police.
“We’re the second largest city in Iowa and too often do we wait on Des Moines, Waterloo, Davenport, to give us a direction, or give us an idea of where we should go,” Robinson last week told The Gazette’s editorial board. “I think Cedar Rapids, Iowa, personally, should lead on the decriminalization of marijuana, and we should do that through an initiative, and we should give the people here the ability to vote on this.”
Robinson, a GoDaddy employee and a community advocate focused on disadvantaged youth, is vying for one of two at-large seats on the Nov. 5 ballot. Incumbent Ann Poe and union leader Pat Loeffler also are running for the four-year seats, and they did not identify this issue as part of their campaign platforms.
Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden cast doubt on whether such a plan could fly.
“The legal authority to determine what is a crime is conferred upon the state legislature by our state constitution,” Vander Sanden said in an email. “The city could not pass and enforce a city ordinance that is inconsistent with state law. That is, Cedar Rapids could not ‘make legal’ anything that is defined as criminal by our state legislature.”
Vander Sanden, who opposes marijuana legalization for recreational purposes but recognizes its medicinal benefits, considers marijuana a gateway drug and said states that have legalized recreational marijuana, such as California, have found black market sales continue to thrive.
“In actual practice, most first offenders are granted a deferred judgment or given a minimum fine of $315,” Vander Sanden said. “In Iowa, judges don’t send people to prison for smoking dope.”
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Lynn Hicks, spokesman for the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, said he is unsure if it has been tested. But Iowa Code Chapter 364 indicates cities may not set standards less stringent than state law, nor may they consider a violation a municipal infraction if deemed a felony, aggravated misdemeanor or serious misdemeanor under state law.
Attitudes about marijuana are relaxing as more and more states legalize or reduce penalties, putting pressure on officials to rethink how the drug is handled on a variety of fronts.
Earlier this year, Iowa lawmakers considered reducing penalties for first offense possession of up to 5 grams of marijuana from a serious misdemeanor — carrying a penalty of up to six months confinement, a $1,000 fine, or both — to a simple misdemeanor with no more than 30 days confinement, up to a $625 fine, or both. The measure didn’t pass.
Iowa has faced scrutiny for marijuana arrest rates being among the most disproportionately skewed toward blacks of any state in the nation, according to American Civil Liberties Union reports. A 2019 Legislative Services Agency fiscal note found blacks accounted for 20.7 percent of the 6,934 first-offense marijuana possession charges in fiscal 2018, despite only accounting for about 4.5 percent of the state’s population.
Robinson agreed marijuana can be used to unfairly target people of color, and that it can lead to more legal trouble, missed job opportunities and other setbacks.
“Regardless of what the state says, we have the ability to say, ‘This is how our people feel,’” Robinson said. “To me it makes sense to be the leader, to be the first one to say, ‘Hey, this is what we want, we’d like to see our police officers actually focusing on real crime and not young kids out here with a joint.’”
Cedar Rapids public safety spokesman Greg Buelow said, “The Police Department has an obligation to enforce local, state and federal laws that are currently in effect.”
Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart said while he does not oppose the legalization of marijuana and anticipates legalization in Iowa and the nation at some point, he does not see decriminalizing marijuana as in the purview of City Council and questions whether the city could legally make such changes.
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“Police officers always have some discretion,” Hart said. “It is an unusual issue for a City Council candidate to address because I don’t think we have any control over that, and it is unlikely I would want to tell our police department how to enforce the laws.”
In Johnson County, similar decriminalization efforts have been made but have led to no formal policies. Iowa City police Sgt. Derek Frank said marijuana possession cases are “officer discretion, case-by-case decisions.”
“Alternatives to arrest are strongly encouraged, but officers will factor all relevant circumstances when making charging decisions,” Frank said.
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