CEDAR FALLS | City Councilman Nick Taiber has proposed decriminalizing marijuana within the Cedar Falls city limits.
“The war on drugs has cost more money, broken more families, contributed to more death, built more criminal enterprises than any benefit it purports to make,” Taiber writes in his blog. “We need to treat drug abuse as a medical and mental condition, not a criminal act.”
Taiber first raised his idea during the City Council’s recent goal setting discussions. It was a flash in the pan, eliciting no marked response from his fellow council members. But rather than let it die there, Taiber took to his blog to elaborate on his thoughts.
Taiber’s proposed approach wouldn’t legalize possession of marijuana as much as decriminalize it.
“While no city can make a law in conflict with State or Federal law, we can certainly establish local policy for enforcement of laws,” Taiber wrote.
In such a scenario, police would be directed to use their discretion to not make arrests for possession of marijuana, to refocus law enforcement resources on property-related and violent crimes instead.
Alan Kemp, executive director of the Iowa League of Cities, said the City Council would be well within its authority to make such a change, though it wouldn't stop other law enforcement agencies like the Black Hawk County Sheriff’s Office from making marijuana-related arrests within the city.
“The City Council has the discretion to enforce those laws within their border, and they can say ‘we’re not going to enforce them,'” Kemp said.
That doesn't mean Cedar Falls Police Chief Jeff Olson thinks it's a good idea.
"From a policing standpoint, if a state law says marijuana is illegal, that’s something I need to enforce," Olson said. “If the City Council were to ask me as a majority to not enforce that, that would be pretty difficult to do.”
Still, Taiber sees decriminalization as a modest step in the right direction.
“I believe in personal choice — medical or recreational — as long as that choice doesn’t infringe on the rights and liberties of another,” Taiber writes in his blog. “Why does it matter if someone chooses to use cannabis for medicinal or recreational benefit? At what point did we rationalize criminal statutes as the only way to treat this perceived problem? What are the benefits of and consequences of prohibition 2.0?”
The nation continues to grapple with questions like these from state to state and city to city. Gov. Terry Branstad and the Legislature dipped a toe in the pool when the state legalized a type of cannabis oil extract for limited medical use this year.
Other states — Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington -- dived into the deep end by legalizing marijuana entirely.
Individual cities across the nation are beginning to re-evaluate their role in enforcing marijuana laws as well.
Starting this year in New York City, possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana will no longer be grounds for arrest. In Flint, Mich., voters approved a ballot proposal Nov. 6 to decriminalize the drug. That idea also has received some traction in Iowa City, where a councilman proposed a similar measure last spring.
Iowa City’s consideration of the idea inspired Taiber to propose decriminalization in Cedar Falls.
“We have an opportunity to take a lead in Iowa, just as other cities across the country have done,” Taiber said.
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In Taiber’s view, it is in everyone’s interest to soften marijuana laws, which bog down the American justice system.
Marijuana-related offenses account for half of all drug arrests in the U.S., and in Iowa it’s more than 60 percent, according to a 2013 study by the American Civil Liberties Union.
U.S. law enforcement made more than 8 million arrests for marijuana possession between 2001 and 2010. According to the ACLU, this is by far the most active front of the nation’s war on drugs, and it cost the states a combined $3.6 billion in 2010 alone.
In that same year, Iowa spent nearly $23 million on more than 6,000 arrests, prosecutions and incarcerations for marijuana related offenses.
The ACLU report also ranked Iowa as having the worst racial disparity in the nation when it comes to marijuana arrests. Even though studies show blacks and whites use the drug at the same rate, African-Americans in Iowa are more than eight times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites.
"The war on marijuana has largely been a war on people of color," the ACLU report reads.
Taiber sees this as a glaring problem, and so does the ACLU, both of whom argue legalization of marijuana is the solution.
Pending definitive action on the federal or state level however, the ACLU advises law enforcement agencies do exactly what Taiber is advocating: Decrease the prosecution of marijuana offenses on the local level.
“Until legalization or depenalization is achieved, law enforcement agencies and district attorney offices should deprioritize enforcement of marijuana possession laws,” reads the ACLU report.
But Taiber is only one of seven council members, the majority of whom have had negative reactions to the idea.
While Councilman Dave Weiland sympathizes with Taiber’s position in regard to medical uses for marijuana, he disagrees with his proposed approach.
“If he wants to legalize marijuana, I would suggest he pursue it at the Statehouse,” Weiland said.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Councilman John Runchey said, “We have enough problems as it is, and I don’t think we need to concern ourselves with that.”
“I think it’s a poor idea for the city to have a law that’s contrary to the state of Iowa,” said Councilwoman Susan deBuhr.
Councilman Frank Darrah declined comment, and Councilman Jim Stichter was unavailable Monday, leaving Councilman Mark Miller as the only potentially supportive voice.
“I think it’s worth looking into,” Miller said.
Taiber doesn’t plan on making any formal motions to decriminalize marijuana within Cedar Falls, but he hopes his open discussion will spark interest in the community to pursue the idea further.
“I don’t shy away from talking about any kind of idea, especially those that are related to civil liberties or criminal justice,” Taiber said. “It’s too easy to sweep those under the rug.”