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You can’t get through a recent news story about a small-city Iowa mayor sentenced for marijuana offenses without imagining a sophomoric laugh line. The city led by Mayor LaDonna Kennedy until her January arrest is named Jamaica. That name is shared by the Caribbean island nation where scores of American tourists have for decades flocked for easy access to ganja.

But the frivolity quickly gets clouded by a sober reality. With its harsh laws and inconsistent enforcement, Iowa is one state that’s still getting it wrong on marijuana. And the ones left to pay the greatest price are those without political power or prominence.

Kennedy and her husband, Randall, were caught growing 18 marijuana plants in their home, where several bags of pot and drug paraphernalia were also found. Each pleaded guilty to manufacturing, delivering or possessing marijuana with intent, and failing to affix a drug tax stamp. Their charge – possession of up to 50 kilograms – is a Class D felony, punishable by up to five years in prison for each count and a $750 to $7,500 fine.

Rekha Basu mug

Rekha Basu

But each Kennedy got only two years of probation and 100 hours of community service. If they comply with the terms of the deferred judgment, a 10-year sentence will not appear on their records.

I’m not sorry they caught a break. Marijuana use at some level is legal in most states but still needlessly criminalized in Iowa, with only a narrow, restrictive exception for medicinal use. Under our archaic laws, even a first offense of possession is a serious misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

But in practice, the weightiest penalties are exacted on those who can least afford them: people of color. A felony on your record can follow you for life, making it hard to get a job, qualify for public housing, or receive college financial aid. It can affect child custody and cost you the right to vote in Iowa. A past felony marijuana conviction will exacerbate any future charges against you, bringing more severe penalties, and allowing the length of a sentence to triple.

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If you’re not a U.S. citizen, even a minor marijuana offense can jeopardize your right to stay in America. In 2017, this column told of Luis Quintana Alvarez, an East High student in Des Moines, who had come to the U.S. with his mother and siblings at 11 months old. Because of that, he was able to get DACA status, preventing his deportation. But after police found a gram of marijuana worth about $10 in a car where Alvarez was a passenger, and he took the blame for it, he lost his DACA status and was ordered deported.

Randall Kennedy’s attorney told The Register he was pleased with the outcome for his client, calling him hard-working, honest and upstanding. He suggested Iowa look at decriminalization “so people aren’t faced with the stigma of drug crimes.”

He’s right. But for a lot of other decent, hard-working Americans with brown or black skin who will languish for years in prison for the same offense, much more than stigma is at stake. The criminal justice system “has turned a comparatively blind eye to the same conduct occurring at the same rates in many white communities,” says a 2013 ACLU report. “Just as with the larger drug war, The War on Marijuana has, quite simply, served as a vehicle for police to target communities of color.”

Study after study confirms black and white Iowans use drugs, and specifically marijuana, at about the same rate. Yet the report found black people 8-1/3 times as likely to be arrested as whites, giving Iowa the highest racial disparity in the nation.

Subsequent ACLU reports show black Iowans are seven times more likely to be arrested for any illegal drug possession. Just 3% of Iowa’s adult population, they are one-quarter of its prison population, imprisoned at a rate nearly 11 times that of white adults. “This imbalance cannot be accounted for by disparate involvement in illegal activity,” the ACLU has written, “and it grows at each stage in the justice system, beginning with initial law enforcement contact and increasing at subsequent stages, such as pretrial detention, conviction, sentencing, and post-release opportunity.”

These inequities play out all down the line, from an initial decision to stop and search someone’s car, to the choice of leveling criminal charges to the sentence, where leniency tends to favor the chosen ones. In 2003, it favored the then president of Des Moines Area Community College. After two-and-a-half pounds of pot were found in their $400,000 home, the president, his wife and 23-year-old daughter each pleaded guilty to felony marijuana possession with intent to deliver, and a tax stamp violation. Each count carried a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $7,500 fine. Each of them also got two years of probation and 100 hours of community service. You’re unlikely to find the offenses on their records. The departing president was also paid tens of thousands to leave his post.

Meanwhile, a gram of marijuana in the vehicle of a black or brown person stopped for a broken tail light can torpedo his or her entire future. And if federal charges are levied, lengthy mandatory minimum sentences kick in. The systemic hypocrisy here is stunning and correcting the inequities will require police, prosecutors, judges and parole boards to each do their share. It’s high time (OK, snicker here if you must) our elected officials, members of Congress, state lawmakers and governors take decisive action to prevent such differential outcomes. Because those are no laughing matter.

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Des Moines Register columnist Rekha Basu can be reached at rbasu@dmreg.com.

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