Iowa has a law that intends to make drug users plead guilty to a lesser charge or suffer the consequences of prison and a large fine: the Drug Tax Stamp law (DTS), Chapter 453B Code of Iowa.
Enacted in 1990, the DTS specifically addresses illegal drugs; all substances legally obtained and sold are exempted, so the law is not a problem for pharmacies. For marijuana, possessing 42.5 grams or more of processed marijuana requires a Drug Tax Stamp that costs $5 per gram (minimum $215) to acquire; the tax per living marijuana plant is $750. Those who fail to obtain a Drug Tax Stamp are charged with a Class D felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of $7,500; the statute of limitations is six years, twice the length for other offenses of this class.
How does this law, which requires users to admit the possession of illegal substances, not violate the 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution—the right against self-incrimination? It does so by including this statement:
Notwithstanding any law to the contrary, the director or an employee of the department shall not reveal any information obtained from a dealer; nor shall information obtained from a dealer be used against the dealer in any criminal proceeding, unless the information is independently obtained, except in connection with a proceeding involving taxes due under this chapter from the dealer against whom the tax was assessed.
The vast majority of those using marijuana are not dealers, but if caught with 42.5 grams or more they are considered to be dealers under this law.
Still, this law is practically a violation of the 8th Amendment, which forbids cruel and unusual punishment. Five years in prison, a $7,500 fine and loss of voter rights as a felon are cruel punishment for having some marijuana in one’s house—a plant that is legal or decriminalized in other states.
Since virtually no one obeys Chapter 435B (two stamps were issued in 2013), what function does this law serve? It seems to be a threat that causes people also accused of lesser crimes, like possession of marijuana and/or drug paraphernalia, to plead guilty to these lesser crimes instead of fighting the DTS charge. Agreeing to accept the proffered “plea agreement” (if you plead guilty to possession, the felony charge will be dropped) removes the possibility of a trial with an acquittal or a jury nullification (refusal to convict), but also removes the threat of prison time, a large fine and a felony conviction for a DTS violation. Which would you choose?
The Drug Tax Stamp law should be repealed. In the meantime, we need to elect a county attorney who won’t prosecute the possession of personal use amounts of marijuana. Exercising such prosecutorial discretion would help hundreds of (mostly young) people living in Johnson County.
Furthermore, considerable money would be collected for the general fund if Iowa followed Colorado’s lead and marijuana were legally sold and taxed. In January, the first month of legalization, Colorado collected $2 million in tax revenues from the sale of recreational marijuana. This would dwarf any revenues collected under the Drug Tax Stamp law.
And how does one permanently affix a stamp of any kind to a bag of loose marijuana or to a living plant in the first place?