2019 LEGISLATIVE SESSION

Lower penalty for minor pot infraction, Iowa senators say

Marijuana possession bill faces dicey fate in House

Sen. Dan Dawson, R-Council Bluffs
Sen. Dan Dawson, R-Council Bluffs
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DES MOINES — Penalties would be reduced for possession of small amounts of marijuana under a proposal that passed a key step Monday at the Iowa Capitol.

A first offense of possessing 5 grams or fewer of marijuana would be downgraded from a serious misdemeanor to a simple misdemeanor under legislation approved by the Iowa Senate.

That means the penalty would decrease from up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000 to up to 30 days in jail and a fine up to $625.

“This changes the point of entry in the court system,” Sen. Dan Dawson, R-Council Bluffs, said. “Minuscule residue levels like this might be better for a magistrate court.”

Senate File 378 passed the Senate with bipartisan support, with 40 lawmakers voting in favor and eight — all Republicans — voting against.

Democrats supported the measure, but later during debate expressed frustration that Republicans did not support including it in a sweeping bill addressing other criminal law changes.

Senate Democrats said including the provision in the criminal law bill would have sent a strong signal to the House.

“I wanted to make the statement to the House that we’re serious about this. Iowa is getting so far behind on its marijuana laws,” said Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines.

Dawson said the criminal law bill was drafted in consultation with House leaders in hopes that both chambers would support it and send to the governor.

“I am more of a realist. I’m trying to get something done,” Dawson said. “This is a bipartisan bill. This has ideas from both sides. ... As opposed to sending bills over (to the House) and having them die, I am trying to advance issues in a bipartisan manner.”

The criminal law bill has myriad provisions, including the option for the expungement of a misdemeanor criminal record after at least eight years, a limit on rights to appeal after a guilty plea and extending the statute of limitations on charges of sexual assault and incest against a minor from 10 to 15 years after the alleged victim turns 18 years old.

Senate File 589 passed the Senate, 31-17, with Democrat Kevin Kinney of Oxford, a retired deputy sheriff, joining Republicans in support.

Lawmakers are working toward a key deadline: by the end of this week, bills must be approved by one full chamber and a committee in the other to remain eligible for consideration for the rest of the session.

Senate Republicans also advanced a bill that would require the state to implement an electronic system to verify the eligibility of Iowans on public assistance programs like Medicaid and food assistance.

The new system would be funded partially by federal dollars, since those assistance programs are jointly funded. The state’s costs for computer upgrades and staffing increases would be $7.4 million in the first year and $1.3 million in the following year, according to the state’s fiscal analysis agency.

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The proposal, Senate File 334, passed on a party-line 30-18 vote with all Republicans supporting and all Democrats opposing. It now heads to the House, where leaders said they do not plan this year to run any bills that deal with requirements for public aid recipients.

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