‘Modest’ Marijuana Penalty Reform Bill Advances In Iowa Senate

A “small step” on marijuana reform advanced on Tuesday in the Iowa legislature.

A GOP-sponsored Senate bill that would lower legal penalties for first-offense Iowans who possess less than five grams of marijuana passed through a Senate Judiciary subcommittee with unanimous support. Democrats say the legislation, which has before passed through the Senate, is a modest proposal in deescalating the state’s severe and biased marijuana policies.

“It’s a really small step compared to the problem we have in Iowa,” said Iowa City Democrat Sen. Joe Bolkcom on the Zoom subcommittee meeting.

“Marijuana prohibition has actually destroyed far more lives and the futures of far more families than continuing to regulate marijuana with these harsh criminal penalties … Our enforcement of Iowa’s marijuana laws are inherently biased. If you’re a black or a brown Iowan you’re nearly eight times more likely to get busted for Marijuana compared to white guys.”

Under current Iowa law, anyone who possesses controlled substances like marijuana would be guilty of a serious misdemeanor for a first offense, punishable by up to six months in jail or a $1,000 fine. Penalties increase up to a class D felony for repeat offenses.

The proposed bill would make it so that if the controlled substance is five grams or less of marijuana, the person is only found guilty of a simple misdemeanor—only for the first offense. A simple misdemeanor is punishable by up to 30 days in jail or a fine of up to $855.

Council Bluffs Republican Sen. Dave Dawson pushed back against Bolkcom’s claims that Iowa’s marijuana law could be destructive for people in the state.

“I would strongly push back and say that by the time someone is actually arrested by law enforcement, there’s probably a variety of things in that individual’s life that put them in contact with law enforcement,” he said. “I certainly don’t hold the view that our marijuana laws suddenly throw someone off a train track in life that they were otherwise not on that destroys their family.”

Addressing socio-economic issues by means of education, for example, could curb Iowan’s run-ins with law enforcement, Dawson said. He noted that the school voucher bill, legislation that is widely contested by public school advocates and also advanced through a subcommittee on Tuesday, could help with this problem.

Dawson said he supported the bill because it would give parole and probation officers additional penalty options. Cost savings would be a result of this bill, he said, because it would get more people out of Department of Corrections supervision.

“It’s fair to say that I’ve always had a straight-lined view toward our drug laws. But a few years ago, I did have the opportunity to talk to some parole probation officers,” he said. “They’re looking for a tool that’s less than an indictable offense.”


by Isabella Murray
Posted 3/2/21

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