A bill to lower the penalties for first-time possession of small amounts of marijuana cleared a Republican-dominated panel in the Iowa Senate Tuesday.
The same bill passed the Senate with broad bipartisan support when Democrats were in control two years ago, but it was not considered in the Republican-controlled House.
The bill’s sponsor says he is serious about getting it passed again under the new Republican majority.
“I wouldn't have brought this bill forward if I didn't think it could become law,” said Sen. Brad Zaun (R-Urbandale). “I need to talk to my fellow Judiciary Committee members and make sure I have the votes.”
Lawmakers of both parties argued the current law comes down too hard on young offenders.
“Five grams of marijuana has destroyed a lot of lives for young people,” said Sen. Tony Bisignano (D-Des Moines).
“Some kid that gets nailed with a little bit doesn't need to get that big a blemish on his record,” said Sen. Tom Shipley (R-Nodaway).
Backers say the bill will help address the disproportionate incarceration of African-Amercans in Iowa prisons.
“Iowa has huge disparities in incarceration in terms of marijuana arrest rates for possession even though usage rates are the same,” said Daniel Zeno with the ACLU of Iowa. “This is a good first step.”
Under the bill, first-time possession of five grams or less of marijuana would be a simple misdemeanor punishable by no more than 30 days in jail.
An officer could issue a citation for the offender to face a sentencing judge instead of being booked in jail upon arrest.
“I don't want to send the wrong signal that we're going down the road of legalizing recreational marijuana,” Sen. Zaun said. “This just allows your first time you made a mistake to not to ruin your life in regards to going down the road for employment.”