Government

Cedar Rapids officials signal openness to lobbying for marijuana law change

City Council hears update on Advocates for Social Justice demands

Darshaun Smith of Cedar Rapids carries a Black Lives Matter flag on a July 18 march to City Hall during a #x201c;We Won'
Darshaun Smith of Cedar Rapids carries a Black Lives Matter flag on a July 18 march to City Hall during a “We Won’t Be Silenced” protest that began in downtown’s Greene Square. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — City officials signaled a willingness Tuesday to lobby for legislative action reclassifying marijuana possession to a lesser misdemeanor as a local Black Lives Matter group pushes for police and justice reforms.

Police Chief Wayne Jerman, reporting to the City Council on the status of Advocates for Social Justice’s demands, said he favors lessening the charge of marijuana possession to a simple misdemeanor instead of a serious misdemeanor. This would permit violators be issued a citation instead of being taken into custody.

However, Jerman said the Iowa Legislature is responsible for determining the category and severity of drug charges.

“The city is committed to working with our legislators, as directed by the City Council, to encourage legislation which is consistent with the views of our community,” Jerman said.

He said the current department practice is that unless clear possession is established, officers do not make an arrest but do take the marijuana because it is illegal to possess in Iowa.

While the advocates recognize the council doesn’t have the legal authority to decriminalize marijuana, their demand asks that officers write only citations for low-level offenses or let violators go completely.

Until state or federal drug laws change, the advocates want the police department to develop a new standard for issuing citations to avoid bias.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

In marijuana possession cases, a Black person is 7.3 times more likely than a white person to be arrested, according to an ACLU study of national law enforcement data.

City Council member Ann Poe discussed adding marijuana decriminalization to the council’s list of priorities for the 2021 session.

“I would encourage our friends with Advocates for Social Justice to please reach out to our local state elected officials as well and talk to them about some of these issues that reside at the state level,” Poe said.

Council member Dale Todd, who chairs the council’s Public Safety and Youth Services Committee, praised Jerman’s recommendation as “a progressive step in the right direction.”

Decriminalizing marijuana possession is one of three of the advocates’ demands that city officials previously vowed to further study,

The advocates also are asking the city to make negotiations between municipal officials and police unions public and abolish qualified immunity for officers.

When the city completes negotiations with the police union, City Manager Jeff Pomeranz recommended, the proposed contract should be put on the council’s regular agenda — not its consent agenda, where items routinely are approved with no discussion.

On the issue of qualified immunity, City Attorney Jim Flitz said it is a legal doctrine the city cannot do away with.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Under this doctrine, a government official can be held liable for unconstitutional actions only if existing case law has “clearly established” the conduct was unlawful. For a lawsuit to advance, Flitz said plaintiffs must point to a similar case already decided by a court that the action in question was illegal.

City staff have reviewed these demands while gathering input about a citizens’ police review board.

The advocates have criticized the process as an effort to quiet Black voices, though they say they are “cautiously optimistic” after working with the city staff.

The council is slated to hear a presentation in October about the input from an online survey and staff also will hold focus groups with residents next month. City staff will present recommendations Oct. 20.

Comments: (319) 398-8494; marissa.payne@thegazette.com

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.