Iowa House kills attempt to reduce the penalty for first-time marijuana possession

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Photo via Wikimedia Commons

On Wednesday, a committee in the Iowa House of Representatives killed a proposal to make first-time possession of small amounts of marijuana a simple misdemeanor. The proposed change to the criminal code would have cut penalties for first-offense possession of less than five grams of marijuana to “confinement for no more than 30 days or a fine of at least $65, but not more than $625, or both.” Currently, the offense is a serious misdemeanor and a first-timer faces up to six months imprisonment and a fine of up to $1,000.

The Iowa House Judiciary Committee stripped the proposed reduction out of the omnibus criminal justice bill passed by the Iowa Senate on March 1.

According to an analysis by the Legislative Services Agency (LSA), there were 3,999 convictions in Iowa for first-offense possession of less than five grams of marijuana in fiscal year 2016. The LSA estimated that if the proposed change became law it would result in “17 fewer admissions to prison, eight fewer admissions to a [community-based corrections] residential facility, 399 fewer admissions to jail, and 526 fewer placements on probation status,” in FY 2018 (which ends on Sept. 30). It predicts those numbers would double in following years. The reductions in incarceration would result in savings for both state and local governments, according to the LSA.

The LSA is required to assess the impact of changes to the criminal code on minority communities. It concluded that the proposed change “would have a positive minority impact to [sic] the African-American community,” because of the disproportionate rate at which black Iowans are arrested for marijuana possession.

In FY 2017, 19.5% of the persons convicted of first offense marijuana possession were African American. The U.S. Census estimate as of July 1, 2017, states that the Iowa population was 3.7% African American.

A 2013 study published by the American Civil Liberties Union found that Iowa had the greatest racial disparity of any state in arrests for marijuana possession. The study, which relied on data from the FBI and U.S. Census Bureau, showed that black Iowans were eight times more likely to be arrested for the crime than white Iowans.

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