On Nov. 5, several U.S. cities voted to legalize recreational use of marijuana: Lansing, Jackson and Ferndale, Mich. and Portland, Maine. Lansing mayor Virg Bernero backed the measure there, which received 62 percent of the vote, saying the “public is far ahead of politicians on this issue,” and in Portland, 69 percent of voters approved legalization.
These cities now join a host of other cities and states across the country in decriminalizing marijuana to varying degrees. All told, 20 states have some form of decriminalization and legalization laws with varying restrictions regarding possession amounts, growing, selling and using, which generally mean, “not in public.” While many states only allow use of marijuana for medical purposes, in 2012, Colorado legalized possession of pot under one ounce for anyone 21 and older, Washington passed a decriminalization and tax initiative with revenues going toward healthcare and substance-abuse prevention and education, and the District of Columbia is poised to decriminalize personal use and possession.
What’s the matter with Iowa?
In the ‘60s, gambling was still illegal in Iowa and liquor had to be bought at state-run establishments where purchases were monitored—but arrests for marijuana smoking were low on the governmental priority list. Now we have casinos and people with gambling addiction, and the news is full of questions about what to do about excessive alcohol consumption, yet we are throwing people in jail for growing or using marijuana.
Consider the case of Bradley A., a 38-year-old Iowa City man arrested Oct. 2 and charged with a controlled substance violation and failure to affix a drug tax stamp—a Class D felony—for growing six marijuana plants in his home. For his personal use as he claims—or not, as law enforcement believes—six plants is not a large quantity of marijuana; but the law requires that a drug tax stamp be affixed to each one, and no one who grows pot would apply for a tax stamp. What we know of Bradley A.’s situation is that he wasn’t buying from the drug cartels, he wasn’t enriching drug lords and he wasn’t bothering anyone. No good comes from this arrest except for the statistics gatherers for next year’s Johnson County Drug Task Force’s (JCDTF) application to renew its annual appropriation under the Edward R. Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program.
Why are we making such a big deal about personal use of marijuana when our three most recent Presidents have admitted to smoking it? Clinton said, “I didn’t inhale;” G.W. Bush, “I was young and foolish;” and Obama, “I inhaled frequently—that was the point.” Clearly, smoking pot does not preclude one from attaining the highest office in the land—and being re-elected—so why are we rounding up people and tossing them in jail for doing it? In fiscal year 2012, approximately 14 percent of jail beds in Johnson County were taken by people charged for use of drugs—mostly marijuana, according UI professor John Neff.
But, instead of proposing progressive marijuana laws like other states, new jails and even more stringent legislation are proposed. A 2013 Pew Research Center poll showed that 48 percent of respondents said they had smoked pot at some point and 12 percent of adults report having smoked marijuana in the past year; Johnson County has about 110,000 adults, which means that roughly 13,200 have smoked approximately one-half ounce of pot on average in the past year. If at least 13,200 people feel like they could be targeted for arrest on marijuana charges, a new jail will remain an item on the Johnson County government’s wish list. Until there is a change in the law or in law enforcement practices, those opposed to the jail only need to get a ‘No’ vote by the many who feel threatened by possible arrest for engaging in a practice they don’t deem harmful to anyone. Decriminalization would reduce the current demand for jail beds by 12-14 percent, and a smaller jail proposal would likely be more palatable to voters.
In the Iowa legislative session last spring, HF 468 was proposed by law enforcement, which would have increased the penalties for not affixing drug stamps. This bill originated in the Office of Drug Control (ODC), which is responsible to Gov. Branstad, and ultimately did not pass. Medical marijuana bills introduced in the House by Rep. Bruce Hunter (HF 22), and Dem. from Dist. 61 (Des Moines) and Iowa City’s Sen. Joe Bolkcom (SF 79)were not allowed to get out of committee for a vote and Gov. Branstad has promised to veto any bill that lessens marijuana penalties. He also wants to strip the Iowa Pharmacy Board of its power to allow medical marijuana.
So, why doesn’t Iowa adopt legislation similar to other states?
Eureka Springs, Alaska, for example, passed a “Cannabis as Low Police Priority” initiative six years ago. Under this ordinance, local law enforcement is directed to issue a summons in lieu of a criminal arrest for adults age 18 and over that are found in possession of up to one ounce of marijuana or marijuana paraphernalia. Marijuana offenses will be punished by a fine, community service or drug counseling and education, but will not be punishable by arrest. For a state with the worst record in the nation (according to a 2013 American Civil Liberties Union report) for incarcerating African Americans more than whites for marijuana possession, why doesn’t Iowa at least consider adopting an ordinance similar to Eureka Springs?
Furthermore, in Iowa we have some of the best land for growing marijuana in the nation and can’t even legally grow hemp, while all over the country other states are seeing the profits rising in both marijuana and hemp industries where these have been legalized. Colorado’s 2013 passage of legislation to tax marijuana is projected to bring in $2 billion over the next five years. Kentucky is poised to reassert itself as the leader in hemp production that it was before federal prohibition, and marijuana is now the leading cash crop in California agriculture. Legalization in California likely will save taxpayers up to $200 million per year in law enforcement costs and yield several billion dollars in increased economic activity (spin-off industries, hemp production, tourism, etc.) and sales taxes. If common sense and a desire to reduce jail and prison populations won’t motivate the cowardly, ill-informed, sheep-like, re-election-craving ninnies in the legislature to revise Iowa’s draconian marijuana laws, perhaps dollar signs and sheer greed will.
There is a statewide election next year. The Legislature or Johnson County should put some form of a marijuana initiative on the ballot (complete legalization, medical marijuana or decriminalization of personal use and possession of small amounts) and see what happens. If nothing else, it would ratchet up voter turnout and motivate younger people to register and vote.
Iowa led the way in the Midwest with same-sex marriage. Let’s do it again by legalizing marijuana. It’s drought resistant and thrives without industrial fertilizers or pesticides—Iowa’s product might well become as famous as Maytag Blue Cheese.
Carol deProsse & Caroline Dieterle
85+ collective years of trying to shake up the system.