Staff Columnist

Don't be fooled, Iowa. Our politicians still don't get it

The drug war rages on in Iowa, extinguishing hope for real change.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signs bipartisan legislation Friday, June 12, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa banning most police choke
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signs bipartisan legislation Friday, June 12, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa banning most police chokeholds and addressing officer misconduct. The signing took place one week after a group of Democratic lawmakers and activists stood in a similar spot, outlining demands to address police violence following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. (Olivia Sun/The Des Moines Register via AP)

The Iowa Legislature passed a meaningful law enforcement reform law last week. All it took was thousands of Iowans in the streets as part of a historic protest movement.

A bill based on the “More Perfect Union plan” championed by Democrats in the Iowa House was approved without a single dissenting vote in the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds.

This is not some symbolic measure to appease demonstrators. Measures include banning rehiring of officers fired for misconduct and empowering the elected attorney general to prosecute police killings. These are only first steps, but they are firmly in the right direction.

Drug prohibition ravages communities of color, tramples every American’s civil liberties, and leads to many unnecessary confrontations between law enforcement and the public, which always have a chance of turning violent.

But don’t be fooled — Iowa’s politicians and law enforcement officials still don’t get it. Under their leadership, the drug war rages on, extinguishing hope for real change.

Ending the drug war is a necessary part of any significant impact on over-policing and state racism. Drug prohibition ravages communities of color, tramples every American’s civil liberties, and leads to many unnecessary confrontations between law enforcement and the public, which always have a chance of turning violent.

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Organizers in the state’s two most active protest communities — Des Moines Black Lives Matter and the Iowa Freedom Riders of Iowa City — list ending marijuana enforcement in their policy demands to state and local officials.

Given multiple opportunities this year to rein in Iowa’s extreme marijuana prohibition laws — an idea with majority support among Iowans — Republican leaders in the Capitol balked. Iowa is set for another year of dangerous and counterproductive drug busting.

In the outgoing Iowa General Assembly, there were at least four proposals to legalize or meaningfully decriminalize marijuana, including at least one introduced by a Republican. None of them even got a committee hearing.

Instead, Republicans voted to make Iowa’s outrageously restricted medical cannabis program even worse. Their bill makes a few more conditions eligible for cannabis treatment, but also restricts the kind of medicine available in a way that could push thousands of Iowans off their proper dose.

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Local officials also have failed to grasp protesters’ messages. Even in Iowa City — where elected officials have embraced the demonstrations and condemned violence against protesters — the unnecessary drug charges keep coming amid the mass gatherings. When the Iowa City Police Department arrested a protester for carrying a weapon while intoxicated, they tacked on a marijuana possession charge.

Unlike some other demands presented by protesters, decriminalizing marijuana has broad mainstream support and has been thoroughly vetted by lawyers and health experts. There is no instruction manual for abolishing the police, worthy a goal as it may be, but there are multiple proven paths to not arresting people who possess a plant that has never killed anyone. Just look to the majority of states that have already stopped doing it.

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Ending the war on marijuana should be the easy part. If Iowa’s elected leaders can’t even get this right, there is little hope they can lead us through the much more difficult issues protesters are demanding action on.

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

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