Reduced marijuana penalties endorsed by Iowa Senate committee

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Criminal penalties would be reduced for possession of a small amount of marijuana under a bill approved Thursday on a voice vote by the Iowa Senate Judiciary Committee.

Senate File 432, sponsored by Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, would classify a first offense for possession of five grams or less of marijuana as a simple misdemeanor, punishable by no more than 30 days in jail and a fine of $625.

Current law classifies the first offense of marijuana possession as a serious misdemeanor, punishable by no more than six months in jail and a fine of no more than $1,000.

“I want to make it very clear that I do not condone this type of activity,” Zaun said. But he believes that use of small amounts of marijuana is common among young people, and he worries that arrests for possession can prevent them from obtaining college scholarships and workforce opportunities.

“I think that this is to allow someone who the first time makes that mistake. We know that this activity is happening, but this is a good step to allow these people to have a second chance,” Zaun said.

The bill heads to the Senate floor, where it faces an uncertain future because similar legislation has stalled in the past.

Sen. Rich Taylor, D-Mount Pleasant, a retired Iowa State Penitentiary employee, expressed his support. “We could go further, but this is a step in the right direction,” he remarked.

A fiscal note prepared last year by the Legislative Services Agency said that in the 2016 fiscal year Iowa had 3,399 convictions for first offense of marijuana possession.

If the legislation had passed last year, analysts said it would have resulted in an estimated 850 fewer serious misdemeanor convictions in fiscal year 2018 and that it would increase to 1,700 fewer convictions in fiscal year 2019. There would be fewer jail, prison, and community-based corrections facility admissions, and fewer placements for probation and parole.

The legislation would also have a positive impact on Iowa’s African-American community, analysts said. In fiscal year 2016, 18 percent of the persons convicted of first offense marijuana possession in Iowa were African-American even though the state’s population of African-Americans was only 3.5 percent.

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