With just one dissenting vote, a committee in the Iowa Senate has advanced legislation to substantially reduce the penalty for first-time offenders caught with “trace amounts” of marijuana. Senator Steve Sodders, a Democrat from State Center, is a deputy sheriff in Marshall County who has made marijuana possession arrests.
“We’re talking about very small amounts of marijuana possession,” Sodders says. “In my experience, a lot of these are basically scrapings out of pot pipes and that’s currently now a serious misdemeanor.”
That means the current penalty for getting caught with five grams or less of marijuana is a $1,000 fine and as much as a year in jail. The bill that cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee would make the crime a simple misdemeanor. That means the fine would be far lower and those found guilty would spend no more than 30 days in jail.
“This will allow for an officer on the street to give them a non-scheduled violation ticket, essentially,” Sodders says. “You’d go to court the next week and the judge would determine the fine.”
Sodders says under the current law, those caught with small amounts of marijuana are booked into jail and they must hire an attorney. Every Republican on the committee voted for the bill, including Senator Jack Whitver of Ankeny.
“I think you have members of both parties right now willing to look at some of our criminal sentences and look at some common sense reforms to help control some of the costs in the system,” Whitver says.
For example, the 500 Iowans who were caught with five grams or less of pot in 2014 were all placed on parole and Whitver says that means each was assigned a parole officer for regular meetings. Senator Kevin Kinney, a Democrat from Oxford, was the lone vote against the bill. He’s a retired lieutenant who was in charge of the investigations division of Johnson County Sheriff’s Department.
“I want to make sure that if someone is arrested for this, that fingerprints can be taken,” Kinney says.
Kinney says that’s important if the same person is picked up a second time for marijuana possession. The bill is now eligible for Senate debate and Kinney says he “might” vote for it then if his concern is addressed. Supporters say this bill is one way to address racial disparities in Iowa’s prison system, an issue Iowa Supreme Court Justice Mark Cady raised during his “Condition of the Judiciary” address in January. Nearly 10 percent of African American men in Iowa have at least one criminal conviction on their record.