Linn County’s new marijuana diversion program is an imperfect plan, but it’s marked improvement over the status quo.
Iowa is among a shrinking class of states that still threatens jail time for first-time marijuana possession offenses. It’s a serious misdemeanor charge that can have lasting impacts on Iowans’ ability to secure jobs, educational opportunities and housing.
At the same time, a slim but growing majority of Iowans support full marijuana legalization and our neighboring states are moving quickly in that direction. Iowa’s marijuana prohibition regime is unsustainable.
The Linn County Attorney’s Office last month announced that some first-time marijuana offenders will be diverted into a special program with no possibility of jail time. For offenders who complete drug treatment and community service, the charge can be dismissed and expunged.
This marks important progress, but it has a couple notable problems.
For one, it’s not available to anyone with previous marijuana charges, nor anyone with a felony conviction. As racial justice advocates point out, those conditions disproportionately block people of color from the program.
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Additionally, the program relies on an outdated model of drug treatment, which considers adult marijuana use to be a disorder. It is the system that needs to be reformed, not the folks who smoke a joint every now and then.
Perhaps this is the best prosecutors can do given Iowa’s outdated prohibition laws. If anything, it underscores the need for local officials to advocate more forcefully to the Legislature for more robust reform.
Linn County becomes only the second county in Iowa to enact such a policy for adult marijuana users, following nearby Johnson County’s lead from a decade ago. As Iowa’s second-largest county, Linn can be a model for other jurisdictions hoping to modernize their law enforcement practices.
It’s a surprising about-face from early 2020, when Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden lambasted The Gazette editorial board for highlighting the gross racial disproportionality in Iowa’s marijuana arrests. He wrote in a guest column that our editorial “was a reprehensible attack on our police and a shameful play of the race card.”
Our community has a long way to go toward racial justice and sensible law enforcement, but Linn County’s diversion program is a positive development, despite its flaws.
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