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Elected officials, substance prevention specialist weigh in on how to remedy marijuana arrest disparities

Published: Jun. 21, 2020 at 10:33 PM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Protesters in Iowa demanding changes to marijuana laws, from Cedar Rapids and Iowa City to Des Moines, have an ally in Sen. Joe Bolkcom of Johnson County.

“I hope that people that are protesting continue to raise this with their policymakers. It’s an important law to change for a whole host of reasons,” he said.

Bolkcom, a Democrat, has been an advocate for changing the state's laws around weed.

He said studies like an April report from the ACLU, showing that Black Iowans are more than seven times likelier to be arrested for marijuana possession than White Iowans, prove the laws aren’t working and aren’t being equally enforced.

“In 2018, there were more than 5,000 convictions for marijuana possession in Iowa,” Bolkcom said. “That’s an extraordinary waste of money to put all those legal resources and jail time and prison time, actually, for some people, into that effort.”

Bolkcom and some of the protesters want the state to decriminalize marijuana, meaning anyone caught with a small amount of it would face a fine but not jail time, like how a parking ticket is handled.

Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker supports that approach too and said he’d like to see Iowa move toward full legalization, allowing anyone age 21 and older to recreationally use and buy it.

“The times, they are a-changing, and I think the majority of Americans are ready for action on the legalization of marijuana,” Walker said.

Walker — who would also support the county attorney choosing not to prosecute low-level marijuana crimes — said the disparities in marijuana arrests between Black and White Iowans aren’t because Black Iowans are using the drug more.

“We know — it’s an empirical fact — that people of color have a disproportionate rate of contact with law enforcement,” he said. “We know that communities of color are overpoliced.”

Maggie Ballard, who works as a prevention specialist with Heartland Family Service in the Council Bluffs area, also supports decriminalization, which she acknowledges might catch people by surprise.

“We want to create policies that will keep people out of prison, that can hopefully get them access to treatment or counseling or things like that, and that will not disproportionately target people of color,” she said.

Heartland Family Service serves people in both Iowa and Nebraska, which treat low-level marijuana offenses differently.

In Iowa, the first offense for possession of marijuana could cost someone a $1,000 fine and six months in jail, while in Nebraska, which has decriminalized marijuana, a first time-offender carrying up to an ounce of weed could be slapped with a $300 but won't go to jail.

But Ballard is against legalizing, or commercializing, marijuana.

She said commercialization has been shown to increase the overall use of the drug, including among youth, and has had other negative effects, particularly on the groups of people she argues decriminalization could help.

“In places like Colorado and Washington, where marijuana has been commercialized, we see that pot shops and dispensaries are really dense in poor neighborhoods and in neighborhoods that have a much higher percentage of people of color,” Ballard said.

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