Your Town Now: With marijuana arrests in the name of public safety, what do we stand to gain?

Your Town Now
Colloquially called “Marijuana School” by many locals, the Diversion Program allows participants to have the charges expunged upon graduation. — photo by Rachel Jessen

How long must we go on having our homes and private spaces invaded for the purpose of arresting marijuana users? The city’s desired goal of community policing takes a step backward with every marijuana arrest, making more people feel threatened by the police.

On Oct. 7, the Iowa City Police Department (ICPD), in conjunction with the Johnson County Drug Task Force (JCDTF), went to the Iowa City home of a 64-year old woman, Dona S., and arrested her. She was charged with a serious misdemeanor for possession of 40 grams of marijuana, which carries a fine of up to $1,875 and a year in jail, and a Class D felony for failure to affix a drug tax stamp. A Class D felony conviction in Iowa can result in up to five years in jail and a fine of $7,500.

After her arrest, she was taken to the Johnson County jail, booked, strip-searched and released on her own recognizance the next morning, but her arrest and booking is now a statistic for the 2013 total jail population (those who take up beds). The numbers of beds being used is cited in arguments favoring the construction of a new jail.

For many people the term “felon” implies a person who is a danger to the community–failure to affix a drug tax stamp or smoking marijuana in the privacy of one’s home does not bring to mind an image of a threatening person.

Employed as a teacher at Kirkwood Community College (KCC), the modest income of Dona S. may be drained by legal expenses that could become financially crippling for her. KCC is at liberty to fire her, which could leave her unemployed as a teacher for the rest of her working years and possibly cause her to become dependent on various social services.

The Johnson County Attorney’s Office is responsible for any leniency that might be granted, but having all charges dropped is unlikely. If her income and assets are low enough, she might be able to use the Public Defender’s Office for representation. Another possible option for her may be referral to the Johnson County Marijuana Diversion Program, although in an article by in The Gazette on April 16, 2010, Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness said that 10 grams or less would be considered an amount for which referral to the program could be made.

Colloquially called “Marijuana School” by many locals, the Diversion Program allows participants to have the charges expunged upon graduation. Agreeing to and being accepted for this program requires paying for and completing an approved substance abuse evaluation and treatment plan, advance payment of all court costs associated with the filing and dismissal of the case, having a clean urinalysis and providing proof in writing that all the requirements have been met. These requirements, as well as two arraignments before a judge, must be completed within 120 days.

Doesn’t it seem ridiculous to put a senior citizen through a substance abuse program for marijuana? Dona S. might very well have been using marijuana for its proven medical benefits. Because of these benefits, the Iowa Pharmacy Board recently recommended that marijuana should no longer be classified as a Schedule I drug (drugs which have no redeeming medical value), but the Legislature has not acted on the Board’s recommendation.

Forty grams of marijuana is a trifling amount; but this small confiscated amount will be added to the others that are acquired by the ICPD and the JCDTF, and to the total amount seized for the year that will be recorded and submitted in the annual application to the Department of Justice in order to receive funding from the Edward J. Byrne Assistance Grant Program. Securing this grant money has become an incentive for vigorous and aggressive efforts to find drugs to confiscate; and because marijuana is by far the most prevalent controlled substance used in Johnson County, it is largely what the JCDTF collects.

The Byrne grants have been given to communities and states for over 25 years, since the program was established by Congress in 1988 during the presidency of George H.W. Bush. Edward Byrne was a young police rookie shot several times at point blank range, and his killing justifiably created outrage. However, more and more money has poured into the grants, and the original intent has become lost: A program originally intended to put more police officers on the streets in cities across the country has now become a major funding source for the militarization of the police and for the war on drugs. Overall the result has been a costly failure and a disaster for citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights.

It’s high time to stop rounding up local citizens of all ages for using marijuana; many would consider justice best served if the Iowa City city council would instruct the ICPD to make marijuana law enforcement its lowest priority and refuse to sign off on any future Byrne grant applications by the ICPD. Iowa City thus would deserve its widely held reputation for being a progressive community, and doing so would be in keeping with the fact that, according to an Oct. 2013 Gallup Poll, 58 percent of the American public now agrees that marijuana should be decriminalized.

Carol deProsse and Caroline Dieterle: 85+ collective years of trying to shake up the system.

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