Guest Columnist

Iowa prosecutor accidentally makes case for marijuana legalization

One explanation for racial disparities in drug arrests is high police presence in minority neighborhoods. That's a key reason we must end marijuana prohibition.

In this March 22, 2019, file photo, a marijuana plant grows at the Compassionate Care Foundation's grow house in Egg Har
In this March 22, 2019, file photo, a marijuana plant grows at the Compassionate Care Foundation's grow house in Egg Harbor Township, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden doesn’t like marijuana.

At 63, he admits he’s never smoked the stuff, but he believes it’s a “gateway drug” and worries the drug has not been subject to enough scientific scrutiny.

Last month, The Gazette published a staff editorial citing a recent report that showed Iowa is one of the worst states for racial disparities in marijuana arrests. The editorial — authored by me, and signed off on by my colleagues — argued racism or implicit bias from police officers is one factor perpetuating the racial gap in drug enforcement.

That line didn’t sit well with Vander Sanden, the county’s prosecutor and top law enforcement official. He published a rebuttal, calling our editorial “reprehensible” and saying we played the “race card” against police. The crux of his argument is that cops aren’t looking for black people with marijuana, they’re just more likely to find marijuana on black people.

County attorney: Reprehensible editorial played ‘race card’ against Iowa police

“It stands to reason that officers will patrol, stop and frisk and make arrests in the areas where violent crime is reported and the complaints are made. It’s not like the police are meandering about the city looking to arrest a certain segment of the population for marijuana charges. When they find marijuana, an arrest is made regardless of the race of the offender,” Vander Sanden wrote in his guest column.

The anti-marijuana county prosecutor unwittingly made a compelling case in favor of legalization — if we remove marijuana enforcement from those situations, we will free up police officers to focus on real crimes, and also help build trust with the community.

It’s an important point, and one that drug reform advocates such as myself do not always articulate well. Police officers are victims of prohibition and bad enforcement strategies, tasked with the impossible job of carrying out orders from politicians and higher-ups.

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In email correspondence with me, Vander Sanden had somewhat more nuanced views than in his guest column. He acknowledged legalization could make for better use of law enforcement and prosecutorial resources, but he’s still not on board with the marijuana movement.

The idea that law enforcers have to enforce all the laws all the time is common among prosecutors such as Vander Sanden. But that’s not quite the position he took several months ago when CBD — a non-intoxicating compound found in cannabis — was in the news.

Iowa law makes no distinction between a tube of CBD lip balm and a big fat blunt loaded with dank bud. According to Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, “any product containing any amount of CBD” is a schedule I substance, meaning it is heavily prohibited.

But last December, Vander Sanden told Gazette news reporters that prosecuting people who violated Iowa’s CBD prohibition was not a high priority for his office.

“What seems to be uncontroverted, is that CBD products can have some therapeutic effect for people who use it and it doesn’t seem to be causing any harm,” he told The Gazette back then.

CBD has some therapeutic effects and doesn’t seem to be causing any harm? The same could be said of marijuana, especially compared to the immense harm caused by much harsher substances such as alcohol.

adam.sullivan@thegazette.com; (319) 339-3156

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