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Bill would reduce penalties for marijuana possession

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A bill moving through the Statehouse would reduce penalties for first-time offenders if they possess small amounts of marijuana.

Senate File 432 scales back penalties for people possessing five grams or less of marijuana if it's their first offense. Under current law, this is could mean up to 6 months jail time and a $1,000 fine while the Senate proposal changes that to no more than 30 days in jail and a fine of $625.

Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, who is the chair of the committee sponsoring this bill, says he does not condone illegal activity like recreational marijuana use; instead, he says, this bill provides second chances to people who've made mistakes.

"What's happening is that these younger people are making poor decisions and being caught with the possession of marijuana and unfortunately they lose scholarships when they go to college and that record haunts them when they go [looking] for future employment," Zaun said. The amount outlined in the bill—under five grams of marijuana—means reduced penalties won't apply to offenders with large amounts like drug dealers, Zaun said.

The nonparitsan Legislative Services Agency released a report when the bill was introduced last session, finding that the reductions in penalties for first-time offenses would save the state money and keep fewer people in jail.

If the bill had passed both chambers last year and become law, there would be 850 fewer serious misdemeanor convictions this fiscal year and 1,700 fewer convictions in the next budget year, FY 2019, according to LSA's estimates. The analysis also found that half of the first offense marijuana convictions involved five grams of marijuana or less.

The agency also points to a positive impact for African-American populations. In the 2016 budget year, African Americans made up 18% of first offense marijuana convictions, even though they make up only 3.5% of Iowa's population, LSA found.

The Iowa State Police Association and Iowa Peace Officers Association are registered against the bill; the Iowa Department of Public Health and the Governor's Office of Drug Control Policy are undecided.

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