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Editorial: Change should come to attorney's office

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | MAY 14, 2014 5:00 AM

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As any dedicated reader of the DI Opinions section has surely noted, the June 3 Johnson County county-attorney primary election (which, in this deeply Democratic county, essentially amounts to a regular election) has become something of a spirited referendum on the county’s policy toward marijuana use.

On one end, there is incumbent County Attorney Janet Lyness, who has taken not insignificant steps to minimize the effects of Iowa’s draconian-marijuana prohibition laws with the Marijuana Diversion Program, which seeks to dismiss charges for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Lyness has gone on record saying that marijuana arrests are a “low priority” for her office and notes, rightly, that her diversion program is “probably one of the most liberal things we have in the state of Iowa.”

Opposing her is John Zimmerman, a former Mennonite preacher and recent UI College of Law graduate who has promised to implement a truly radical vision of law enforcement if elected.

Zimmerman has stated that he will end all prosecutions of marijuana-related offenses and public intoxication, arguing that enforcing the War on Drugs in Johnson County is not only an ineffective attitude toward a victimless crime but also a perpetuation of economic and racial inequalities in the legal system.

As Zimmerman has pointed out, most of Johnson County’s (incarcerated and charged) drug offenders are poor, black, or both. A 2013 ACLU report ranked Iowa as worst in the nation for drug arrests disparity, with African Americans eight times more likely than whites to be arrested for a drug that they use at roughly the same rates (Johnson County was ranked as the third worst county in the state when it came to this racial disparity).

While we certainly applaud Lyness’ attempts to erase the rougher edges of the state’s marijuana policy, the fact remains that the current regime of marijuana prohibition is not only an abject failure but a truly destructive weapon that ruins the lives of an unconscionable number of Johnson County residents. As former DI archivist Caroline Dieterle pointed out in a recent letter to the editor, despite the diversion program’s dropping charges against low-level offenders, arrest records can still be used by employers to deny employment to those guilty of simple possession of marijuana. In the face of a profoundly detrimental policy, it is refreshing to see a candidate willing to break through the conservative mindset that defines the state political class’ point of view on this issue.

This does not mean that there are not reservations about a Zimmerman vote. He is wildly inexperienced, having just recently graduated from law school, and there are overwrought but still valid concerns about Zimmerman’s ability to run an office with a budget of $3 million annually with absolutely no experience of running an institution this large.

These reservations, however, do not outweigh the potential of a Zimmerman administration in the County Attorney’s Office. A total and abrupt end to prosecutions for marijuana offenses is the only responsible solution to the legal abomination that is marijuana prohibition, and Zimmerman is the only candidate willing to take the necessary steps to enact this goal. As such, we cautiously endorse John Zimmerman for county attorney and hope that his administration will be as promisingly radical as his campaign rhetoric.


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