Iowa prosecutor accidentally makes case for marijuana legalization

Iowa media outlet the Gazette reports…

Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden doesn’t like marijuana.

At 63, he admits he’s never smoked the stuff, but he believes it’s a “gateway drug” and worries the drug has not been subject to enough scientific scrutiny.

Last month, The Gazette published a staff editorial citing a recent report that showed Iowa is one of the worst states for racial disparities in marijuana arrests. The editorial — authored by me, and signed off on by my colleagues — argued racism or implicit bias from police officers is one factor perpetuating the racial gap in drug enforcement.

That line didn’t sit well with Vander Sanden, the county’s prosecutor and top law enforcement official. He published a rebuttal, calling our editorial “reprehensible” and saying we played the “race card” against police. The crux of his argument is that cops aren’t looking for black people with marijuana, they’re just more likely to find marijuana on black people.

• County attorney: Reprehensible editorial played ‘race card’ against Iowa police

“It stands to reason that officers will patrol, stop and frisk and make arrests in the areas where violent crime is reported and the complaints are made. It’s not like the police are meandering about the city looking to arrest a certain segment of the population for marijuana charges. When they find marijuana, an arrest is made regardless of the race of the offender,” Vander Sanden wrote in his guest column.

The anti-marijuana county prosecutor unwittingly made a compelling case in favor of legalization — if we remove marijuana enforcement from those situations, we will free up police officers to focus on real crimes, and also help build trust with the community.

It’s an important point, and one that drug reform advocates such as myself do not always articulate well. Police officers are victims of prohibition and bad enforcement strategies, tasked with the impossible job of carrying out orders from politicians and higher-ups.

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