November 24, 2014 • By Mike Anderson
CEDAR FALLS | An ordinance to decriminalize possession of marijuana could be on the table for discussion by the City Council as early as Dec.11.
That’s the hope of R. Allen Hays, a retired University of Northern Iowa political science professor and former director of the school’s graduate program in public policy. Hays is the chairman of the War on Drugs task force, a branch of the Cedar Valley Citizens for Undoing Racism.
“For a long time I have thought that marijuana prohibition is not good public policy,” Hays said. “It’s just inconsistent. We have many more dangerous drugs that are legal like alcohol and cigarettes, but we’re putting people in jail for pot. The inconsistency has always bothered me.”
The advocacy group Hays represents focuses on how racial disparity permeates American society, particularly in the justice and prison systems. According to the NAACP, almost 60 percent of the prisoners in the U.S. are African-Americans and Hispanics, even though those minorities make up only 25 percent of the nation’s population.
“We see the war on drugs as the single most important contributor to that disparity,” Hays said. “I think it is an issue that is urgent for our society to address.”
The American Civil Liberties Union shares his view.
According to an ACLU report released last year, even though the two races use marijuana at the same rate, blacks across the nation are almost four times more likely to be arrested for possession than whites.
The same report identifies Iowa as the worst state in the nation in terms of racial disparity when it comes to marijuana-related arrests. In Iowa, blacks are eight times more likely than whites to be arrested for possession of the drug.
Hays, along with the ACLU, see decriminalization of the drug at the local level as a viable way to tackle that disparity.
“Localities can make decisions about what they choose to emphasize in law enforcement and what not to emphasize,” Hays said. “We would like to see Cedar Falls make marijuana arrests a low priority for the police so that they not spend time and resources trying to bust people with possession.”
Legalizing the drug in Iowa would require a change in state or federal law, but according to Alan Kemp, executive director of the Iowa League of Cities, city councils have the authority to decriminalize possession of marijuana.
Hays sees Cedar Falls as fertile ground for this kind of reform thanks to City Councilman Nick Taiber, who has become an outspoken advocate of decriminalization.
“I think Councilman Taiber has presented us with a really good opportunity to do some education on this,” Hays said. “I think it’s great he’s raising this issue.”
The ordinance Hays and his group plans to present to the Cedar Falls City Council is being drafted by Quinn Symonds and Aaron Schoeneman, a pair of marijuana activists from Mason City and Ames respectively. Symonds and Schoeneman hope their decriminalization ordinance will serve as a template that activists can bring before city governments across the state.
The first stop is the Cedar Falls City Council, and at least three of its seven members have already voiced opposition to decriminalization.
But Hays isn’t worried.
“There’s a national trend in our favor. and hopefully at some point the council will see fit to change the policy,” he said. “You don’t go into these things expecting instant results. You have to keep pushing at it.”
Hays said he is open to taking the decriminalization ordinance to the Waterloo City Council if it receives approval in Cedar Falls. He previously worked with the Waterloo Neighborhood Coalition.
Those interested in learning more about the Cedar Valley Citizens for Undoing Racism and the War on Drugs task force’s marijuana decriminalization efforts may contact Hays at firstname.lastname@example.org.