Staff Columnist

The first step to winding down the drug war in Iowa

One modest change to Iowa Code, now backed by Cedar Rapids officials, could have a huge impact on policing

Wild marijuana grows next to a sidewalk on the property of the Dubuque Law Enforcement Center Monday July 31,2001 in Dub
Wild marijuana grows next to a sidewalk on the property of the Dubuque Law Enforcement Center Monday July 31,2001 in Dubuque, Ia.. (AP Photo/Telegraph Herald, Dave Kettering)

The balance of power between state and local governments has been a constant source of tension between Black Lives Matter protesters and city government officials this year.

Again and again, city council members say they are sympathetic to protesters’ demands, but they say they are constrained by state law. Case in point: Racial justice advocates in Iowa City, Cedar Rapids and Des Moines are demanding a stop to frivolous drug enforcement by police officers, especially for marijuana.

Unfortunately, a full retail marijuana program is a long way off for Iowa. Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds has no interest in it, and even some Democratic legislators and candidates declined to endorse full legalization in recent meetings with The Gazette editorial board.


Importantly, dropping the charge from a serious misdemeanor to a simple misdemeanor would allow cities to make it a municipal infraction, punishable by a citation and no arrest or possibility of jail time.


Fortunately, a common-sense compromise on marijuana reform in Iowa has already been written and it has bipartisan support.

There is a huge gap between Iowa’s laws and Colorado’s, with plenty of stops along the way. One middle ground is local control.

Cedar Rapids officials this week said they will advocate to legislators to decrease the penalty for marijuana possession in Iowa.

Importantly, dropping the charge from a serious misdemeanor to a simple misdemeanor would allow cities to make it a municipal infraction, punishable by a citation and no arrest or possibility of jail time. It would be de facto decriminalization on a local basis, a vast improvement over the status quo.

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Iowa lawmakers have recently introduced bills to do that — and one even earned unanimous approval from a GOP-controlled Iowa Senate committee in 2018 — but the proposal has not earned full approval from the Legislature.

My local elected leaders in Iowa City and Johnson County have been leaders on raising this issue.

The Iowa City Council called for “local control over the regulation and enforcement of the possession of marijuana” in its 2017 legislative priorities, and directed the city’s hired lobbyists to support marijuana reform bills. The Johnson County Board of Supervisors in 2019 put full “legalization of marijuana” on its legislative priorities.

The problem is Iowa City and its far-left reputation don’t carry much influence in the GOP-controlled state government. You know who might have some sway, though? The police chief of Iowa’s second-largest city. Republicans love police.

“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,” police chief Wayne Jerman said this week, as reported by The Gazette’s Marissa Payne.

Call it the Cedar Rapids compromise. I’m sure my fellow Iowa Citians won’t mind forgoing credit as long as the goal is achieved.

Iowa has one of the nation’s worst drug enforcement regimes and a bad record of disproportionately targeting Black people in the justice system. Policymakers’ inaction on marijuana reform is a great disservice not only to the public, but also law enforcement officers.

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Given unworkable state laws, some departments are opting not to make arrests for small possession. But officer discretion lends itself to biased and unequal enforcement. Iowa’s old-timey marijuana laws make cops’ jobs harder.

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

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