Going to pot
A new bill would treat even casual pot
with the same severity as pedophiles
BY GEOFF S. FEIN
In an attempt to stop drug dealers who have learned to get around the law, some
legislators want to increase penalties for simple marijuana possession. If the bill
passes, even the occasional user might face long prison sentences and big fines.
The proposal from Representatives Jeff Lamberti (R-Ankeny), Joseph Kremer (R-Jessup) and G. Willard Jenkins (R-Waterloo), would make a third conviction for smoking marijuana a crime equivalent to serious assault or indecent contact with a child.
Currently, a person convicted of simple possession faces a maximum sentence of six months in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000. The problem with the law, Lambertie says, is that there are no increased penalties for repeat offenders.
A person convicted two or more times for simple marijuana possession could face up to two years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
"If you haven't learned after two times," Lamberti says, "how many times
are we going to give you?"
Under the proposal, a second conviction for simple possession would result in up to a year in jail. Two or more convictions could mean a prison sentence of up to two years and a $5,000 fine. (A similar conviction for possession of any other illegal drug could result in a sentence of up to five years and up to a $7,500 fine.)
The goal, Lamberti says, is to stop dealers who have learned to skirt the law.
"They've figured out that if they carry smaller amounts of drugs they can only be arrested for simple possession. They're thumbing their nose at the law."
"City leaders said they wanted stiffer penalties for repeat violators," Jenkins adds.
Leon Mosley, a Black Hawk County Supervisor, says if legislators want to stop drugs sales, they'll have to come up with laws that hit dealers in their wallets.
"The answer is not a little fine. If you're dealing with thousands of dollars, the fine should be appropriate," he says. "We've got to quit thinking they are poor kids. We need to make the penalty fit the crime."
Some, like Carl Olsen, head of the Iowa chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, say the current law is too severe and attempts to increase the penalties are draconian.
"This is incredibly harsh. It's like a witch hunt. If you don't want people to use it, come up with reasonable regulations."
And Olsen disagrees that smoking marijuana is hazardous.
"There are a lot like me who used marijuana and have had no serious health risks," he says. "It doesn't justify this sort of treatment."
Moreover, the proposal would ensnare dealers and casual users alike. Defense attorneys say increased prosecutions could burden an already overcrowded court system, particularly when those facing second and third possession charges opt for jury trials instead of pleading.
Since the onset of the War on Drugs in the '80s, the country's prison population has exploded. About 60 percent of the inmate population are in for drug offenses.
Yet Polk County Attorney John Sarcone says smoking pot isn't a victimless crime.
"We're not going to provide a marketplace for selling dope," he says. "Marijuana is not the benign drug that people think it is."
Defense lawyers fear the proposal will hurt people in need of treatment. Instead of rehabilitation, users will end up behind bars.
"To put someone away for a felony for an addiction is an overreaction," says Des Moines attorney Dean Stowers.
Attorney Maggi Moss says legislators have focused on the wrong direction. They should be making laws tougher on violent criminals, not on drug users.
"We need to get tough on crime, but not on a guy smoking a joint," she says. "Any state with any amount of insight should know that to build more prisons to house drug offenders... it doesn't work."
February 18, 1998, Page 10