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CEDAR RAPIDS — First-time, low-level marijuana offenders could avoid significant punishment under a program announced Monday by the Linn County Attorney’s Office.

The Marijuana Diversion Program, which starts Friday, is designed for new offenders found in possession of a user quantity of marijuana and who face a simple possession charge in Linn County.

The goal, said County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden, is to divert first-time marijuana offenders away from drugs and keep them out of the criminal justice system.

“We’re trying to strike a balance here between accountability, in terms of enforcing the law, but we also want to make an effort at giving first-time offenders a chance at rehabilitation and exoneration,” Vander Sanden said. “That’s what this program is all about — trying to find and strike the right balance.”

Racial Disparity

Johnson County implemented a similar program about 10 years ago, Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness said, in response to research that indicated marijuana arrests and convictions disproportionately affected Black people.

An ACLU study published this year found that Iowa has the fifth-worst racial disparity involving marijuana arrests of any state. Only Montana, Kentucky, Illinois and West Virginia have wider disparities, according to the report.

In Iowa, Black people make up 4 percent of the population but are 7.3 times more likely to be arrested on marijuana charges and 11 times more likely to be incarcerated than white Iowans, according to the ACLU, even though studies have shown Blacks and whites use marijuana at roughly the same rate.

It was stats like those, Lyness said, that moved her office to start its diversion program, which offers first-time marijuana offenders the option of completing a substance abuse program and submitting a clean drug test in exchange for the charges being dropped.

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“I think it has had a really positive impact in our community and in our court system,” she said. “And it’s good to see Linn County is moving in that direction, too. I’m glad they’re finally catching up with us after all these years.”

A marijuana conviction can result in difficulty getting housing, finding employment or obtaining scholarships, Lyness said.

Who Will Qualify

To qualify for the Linn County diversion program, a defendant must be a first-time offender found in possession of a “user-amount quantity of marijuana” and charged with possession of a controlled substance (marijuana) and/or possession of drug paraphernalia.

Additionally, the defendant’s charge has to be pending as of Jan. 1 or the arrest has to have occurred on or after Jan. 1, and the defendant cannot have been previously granted a deferred judgment or convicted of possession of a controlled substance or other offenses related to controlled substances.

The offender also cannot have a felony conviction or be currently charged with either another indictable offense or any crime of violence.

The program is voluntary, so if the defendant agrees to participate, the charges will be suspended for six months while the defendant completes a series of actions: The defendant must obtain a substance abuse evaluation, complete any treatment recommended by it, do 10 hours of community service and appear for all court dates. The defendant also must waive the right to a speedy trial and the right to file pretrial motions to suppress evidence and cannot be arrested or convicted of any new offenses.

If the requirements are met, the case will be dismissed with a recommendation the court expunge the arrest and charge, though the defendant will still have to pay a $100 court fee.

Changing Attitudes

Vander Sanden said implementation of such a program has been in discussion over a year.

“I’ve been in this office now for 37 years and I’ve seen a substantial change in attitudes about marijuana,” he said. “And since that time … I’ve seen society move toward the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana, and it was even on the ballot for some states this past November. So there’s a continuing debate about marijuana and marijuana enforcement, and I think that the average person would say there are other ways to handle those that are first-time offenders and mere users so that we can keep them out of the justice system, and that’s really what this diversion program does.”

Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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