Staff Columnist

Battle brewing between police and elected officials over marijuana enforcement

Iowa Legislature could stave off a crisis by acting on GOP-sponsored bill

A marijuana plant. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)
A marijuana plant. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

Iowa now has a road map for local governments to wind down the drug war.

A Des Moines task force this week submitted its recommendations for minimizing enforcement of marijuana possession. It is the clearest and most detailed plan we have for seizing local control over drug policy in Iowa.

Most states have legal or decriminalized marijuana, but Iowa remains one of the few where marijuana possession still is a jailable offense and where no local government has adopted a formal policy against marijuana enforcement.


“Success depends on legitimate implementation by law enforcement.”


Des Moines marijuana task force


On a recommendation to curb marijuana enforcement


Cities in Iowa don’t have the authority to decriminalize drugs. Instead, cities could enact ordinances declaring marijuana to be a “lowest enforcement priority,” according to the task force, which was created by the Des Moines City Council this year.

A lowest enforcement priority designation basically directs the police department not to pursue pot busts. Such policies have been adopted by cities across the country over the past 20 years, but the strategy hasn’t been tried in Iowa.

Advocates and lawyers caution, “success depends on legitimate implementation by law enforcement.”

Des Moines police chose not to participate in the process. In a statement to the Des Moines Register, the police chief said officers would keep enforcing marijuana laws, even if the recommendations are adopted: “We remain committed to enforcing the laws in a fair and impartial manner without undermining the democratic system that sets the standards and expectations, at the state level, as it pertains to the crime of drug possession.”

Indeed, in some cities with lowest enforcement priority policies, the police ignore them and press charges anyway, according to the Marijuana Policy Project.

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To get buy-in from the police, the task force recommended publishing reports on public support for marijuana enforcement, the fiscal impact of police activity and citizen complaints against police.

Some police worry they could be sanctioned if they decline to carry out state laws, but the task force found no information showing the policy would lead to loss of accreditation for officers or the department.

A politically daring city council could set off a clash between local governing authorities, testing whether an appointed police chief can defy his elected bosses. A big crisis at city hall could draw responses from state authorities or the courts, giving clarity about what power cities have to govern their police departments.

But the Iowa Legislature has the power to stave off a municipal fiasco like that. Lawmakers could clear up any legal confusion by passing a bill that already has support among Republicans who control state government.

Reducing marijuana possession to a simple misdemeanor under state law would allow cities to make it a municipal infraction, punishable by a citation and no threat of jail time. A bill to do that previously earned support from a Senate committee, and it has backing from criminal justice advocates and city officials in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids.

Full legalization might be politically infeasible in Iowa, but a common-sense compromise to bolster local control is a strong possibility. It’s time to let cities in Iowa decriminalize marijuana.

(319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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