Local officials mull pot reform


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Following the footsteps of several states, officials in Iowa are beginning to consider reforming marijuana regulations.

The Johnson County Board of Supervisors met with state legislators — including Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, and Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville — Tuesday afternoon to discuss their legislative priorities for 2014. One of these issues was the reform of marijuana laws.

A majority of the supervisors support production of industrial hemp crops by agricultural producers because of the economic benefits it could provide to the county. Most also support the use of medical cannabis to treat disease or alleviate symptoms, as well as decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Such decriminalization sparked the most debate between the supervisors. Supervisor Pat Harney said this is a piece of the law he has no particular issue with, though he is hesitant to make marijuana entirely legal.

“I don’t mind changing the law to make it a misdemeanor for small quantities,” he said, noting he supports citations for small amounts of marijuana possession, similar to traffic violations. “I’m not crazy about legalizing [it entirely]. The smell of marijuana is second to the sewage plant.”

Supervisor Chairwoman Janelle Rettig went a step further, and said legalizing marijuana wouldn’t be a problem as long as it is handled well, and said in fact this could lower arrest rates.

“I don’t see marijuana, if it was regulated, legalized, and taxed, as much different than alcohol,” she said. “We are bogging down our courts and making criminals out of people. Any sort of reform here will help the county with our court system and jail and also help a lot of young people not start life with a very serious criminal felony issue on their list.”

The issues of industrial hemp and medical marijuana were also discussed, and Rettig said these are “no-brainers” for the state. A total of 20 states, and Washington, D.C., have already legalized medical marijuana, and Rettig said Iowa should follow.

“I think the states that have done this are leading the charge,” she said.

Bolkcom, who introduced medical-marijuana legislation into the Iowa Legislature in 2009, said county support of this issue could lead to changes on the state level.

“I think it’s an issue that deserves more debate and thoughtful discussion,” he said. “It’s helpful when elected officials are willing to have that discussion.”

Other legislators do not think medical marijuana should be legalized, including Rep. Dean Fisher, R-Garwin.

“I’m opposed to it,” he said. “I don’t find the claims of its efficacy for medical use to be all that credible. I think it’s just a backdoor excuse to legalize a drug.”

Harney also contended with issues involving marijuana, specifically on the issue of industrial hemp crops. Hemp is a species of the cannabis plant used primarily for industrial purposes such as paper. Marijuana is also derived from the cannabis plant.

“Hemp to me is a product that’s already growing in the wild,” he said. “To me, it’s an invasive species. If we start to see more of it, we’re going to have a real problem.”

Supervisor Rod Sullivan said industrial hemp could help the economy of Iowa by providing an alternative to trees for paper.

“It’s got the potential to be a great cash crop … in a lot of ways,” he said. “I think it’s a great opportunity for the farmers of Iowa.”

Sullivan said though he didn’t accomplish everything he wanted with the reform plans, it is a necessary change.

“I lost the fight,” he said. “You can either be on the cutting edge of it, or you can be behind. I think we’re behind.”

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