Editorial: Decriminalize in Iowa City


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Last year, the mid-sized city of Portland, Maine, posed a question to its residents: Should adults found possessing marijuana be punished under the law? Portland’s 66,214 residents answered with a resounding no, voting 67 to 33 percent to decriminalize cannabis.

It’s a question that has been asked in cities and states across the country, with many adopting the same types of policies as Portland. Now, at least one city councilor in Iowa City is considering a similar plan.

“It’s clearly an issue nationwide,” said City Councilor Jim Throgmorton. “I think we definitely should be looking into it.”

The issue was brought before the council after it received correspondence urging the councilors to consider changing marijuana-policing policies because of the racial disparity in marijuana arrests.

“The evidence is clear that African Americans are arrested more frequently for possession of marijuana,” Throgmorton said. “The main thing I think we need to at least look into carefully is whether there would be benefits associated with instructing the police not to arrest people merely for possession of marijuana or smoking marijuana.”

Throgmorton’s progressive positions have often put him at odds with the council. But after an ACLU national report released last year found a black person in Iowa is more than 8 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, making Iowa the most disparate on these arrests in the nation, it’s apparent that the time has come for a change in our policing.

When compared with the national average of blacks being 3.7 times as likely to be arrested for possession, the injustice in Iowa’s justice system is indisputable.

Sensible decriminalization of marijuana on a local level would help to alleviate this. Portland’s law allows up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana with the stipulation that pot cannot be smoked in parks, school grounds, and certain other areas.

Beyond the issues of racial injustice and discrimination, this type of policy is practical. Police can’t possibly catch most marijuana offenders. But by prioritizing schools and parks for enforcement, they can ensure that these areas are kept drug-free.

There’s another benefit to decriminalization that’s especially relevant to Iowa City: less crowding in the jail. Officials have argued the caseload for Johnson County has increased over the years, leading to not one but two ballot initiatives over two years to build new facilities, both of which failed to get the necessary votes.

In November 2012, Johnson County residents failed to pass a proposed bond referendum that would put $46.8 million into the construction of a new, 243-bed facility with six courtrooms. While 56 percent voted in approval, it failed to pass the 60 percent required supermajority.

In May 2013, an updated $43.5 million bond referendum reduced the number of beds and courtroom space from the earlier proposal. Once again, votes fell short of the supermajority, coming in at just 54 percent.

While marijuana decriminalization won’t solve the jail overcrowding issue on its own, it certainly can’t hurt. In 2011, there were 363 arrests for marijuana possession. There were 237 in 2012 and 272 in 2013. Getting these offenders out of the justice system is an important step to take if officials want voters to take another look at new jail facilities.

Decriminalization is not legalization. Offenders still face tickets and other punitive measures.  But given that decriminalization can mitigate racial disparities in arrests and reduce the burden on our justice system, we urge the City Council to act on marijuana decriminalization and join the many other municipalities and 16 states that have done the same.

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