Michigan became the latest state to allow recreational marijuana. From a Wisconsin perspective, we look at basic marijuana laws for the neighboring states of Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois.
The Des Moines City Council will consider a resolution Monday that would be the first step toward decriminalizing marijuana in Iowa’s capital city and making enforcement of marijuana possession law enforcement’s lowest priority.
If approved, the order would create a six-person task force to study the issue and provide recommendations to the council by Oct. 1.
Even if the council decides to take action, it would not legalize marijuana, since city ordinances don’t trump state and federal laws. But it would instead tell police it’s not a priority to arrest people found in possession.
Amid conversations about the disproportionate impact of drug laws, however, advocates and council members said passage would be a first step toward change.
“It’s about making our community work better for everyone and making our community more efficient in how we use our resources,” Council member Josh Mandelbaum said. “… It’s one of the ways that inequality exists in our community that we can actually do something to address.”
The issue was brought up during conversations around the city’s proposed ban on racial profiling, which will also be discussed Monday.
Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and other community organizations have called for “making marijuana possession the lowest law enforcement priority” because Black people are more likely than white people to be arrested for possession, despite similar usage rates.
According to a 2020 ACLU report, Black Iowans are 7.3 times more likely to be arrested than white Iowans for possession of marijuana — the fifth-highest disparity in the nation.
“The ACLU advocates for the decriminalization of marijuana, but this a solid first step,” spokeswoman Veronica Fowler said Friday. “The (ACLU’s recent) study is solid statistical evidence that there is implicit bias in enforcing marijuana laws.”
The resolution, sponsored by four of the council’s six members, will be considered at the Des Moines City Council’s regular meeting at 4:30 p.m. Monday. Connie Boesen, Carl Voss and Joe Gatto are also sponsors, along with Mandelbaum . The meeting on Monday will held virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
If approved, the assigned task force would be asked to recommend two things:
- Any actions the state Legislature could take that would facilitate making marijuana a lower enforcement priority;
- Any actions and policies, including but not limited to ordinance changes, that the city could implement under existing state law to make marijuana possession a lower enforcement priority.
The council would only act if it would not result in police officers’ loss of accreditation by the state or result in a denial of state or federal funding, the resolution says.
To join the council’s Zoom meeting, click this link.
Mandelbaum said the city plans to act, even if the Iowa Legislature does not move to decriminalize the drug. He likened the potential “decriminalization” to the discretion law enforcement have over speeding regulations, saying police prioritize pulling over drivers only if they’re going more than 10 miles per hour over the speed limit.
“We make discretionary decisions all the time about how we enforce the law,” he said.
In Iowa, people charged with possession of marijuana for personal use can spend anywhere from six months to two years in jail and be fined up to $6,250, depending on how many times they’ve been charged.
Cities across the country have chosen to make marijuana possession the lowest law enforcement priority, even in states that haven’t decriminalized or legalized marijuana. The task force would be charged with looking at how other cities have made similar moves.
“We’re not on the cutting edge of this,” Mandelbaum said.
If approved, the six-person volunteer task force would consist of one person appointed by the city attorney; one member of the Civil and Human Rights Commission; an attorney jointly selected by the NAACP, ACLU and ICCI; an attorney with experience in criminal defense matters selected by the city council; an individual with background in substance abuse treatment services and resources; and a member of the community with demonstrated interest and involvement in these issues, selected by the city council. The Police Department could also make one person available for consultation.
“As with any legislative process, we will participate as is appropriate and continue to provide the best service to our citizens,” said Sgt. Paul Parizek, spokesman for the Des Moines Police Department.
The city council has already selected Gary Dickey Jr. to serve on the task force as the attorney with criminal defense experience and Billy Weathers, who has organized and led local protests in recent weeks, as the community member.
“I hope that any brother, sister, any human, any Black woman or Black male sitting in jail or prison on a marijuana-related offense has a chance to get their records expunged,” said Weathers, 29. “… I hope our government stops spending money on petty offenses and starts focusing and allocating funds to real problems that we can fix. Things that matter.”
A majority of Iowans have shown support for legalizing marijuana for recreational use, according to a Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll conducted in March. More than half (53%) of Iowans supported recreational marijuana, up from 29% when the same question was asked in February 2013.
Recommendation: get law enforcement buy-in
Philadelphia and Pittsburgh passed ordinances decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana possession in 2014 and 2015, respectively, and saw immediate drops in marijuana possession arrests. The two Pennsylvania cities had different results.
Marijuana possession arrests in Philadelphia dropped from 2,887 in 2014 before the ordinance to 858 in 2015 after it was enacted, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. And the city saw an average of 694 possession arrests in 2016, 2017 and 2018, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer and Pennsylvania State Police
Marijuana possession arrests in Pittsburgh dropped from 707 in 2015 to 544 in 2016, but then climbed to 867 in 2017. According to data from the Pittsburgh Police Department, 801 people were arrested for possession in 2018 and 745 in 2019.
Why did Philadelphia see such a steep decline, while Pittsburgh didn’t?
“It all comes down to law enforcement buy-in,” said Patrick Nightingale, executive director of the Pittsburgh chapter of the National Organization of the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Nightingale said even though the ordinances are the same, the police departments chose to enforce them differently. Specifically, he said the Pittsburgh police chief told his officers in a memo that they “may” follow the ordinance, but did not say they “shall” follow it.
“I asked them to use the word ‘shall,’” Nightingale said, “and police leadership would not do that because they were concerned that it would cause a rift with the Fraternal Order of Police.” As a result, he said, 75 to 80% of marijuana possession cases result in a misdemeanor charge, rather than a citation.
As the Des Moines city council looks ahead toward potentially drafting its own decriminalization ordinance, Nightingale says buy-in from law enforcement is essential.
“You really want to have a good conversation with law enforcement leadership,” he said, since officers are the ones expected to change their behavior and attitude about how to enforce low-level marijuana crimes.
“This is a way to improve community law enforcement relations. This is a way to save officers time and money. This is a way to utilize law enforcement resources more efficiently. And, most importantly, this does not take any power or rights away from law enforcement.”
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