Marijuana Reform

Ashley Vanorny
8 min readDec 29, 2020


In 1936, the propaganda film, Reefer Madness ( was released. It discussed the “new drug menace” of Marijuana, referring to it as a “violent narcotic.” The following year the Marijuana Tax Act was passed by Congress that set out to criminalize possession and use. In the 1936 film, a man can be seen encouraging others to invest in “compulsory education on the subject of narcotics in general” to “lay the foundation to demand by law” criminalization because “it is only through enlightenment” in understanding it’s danger that Marijuana use could be addressed in our community. Of course, this association of marijuana’s equation to danger and crime was riddled with racialized discrimination ( ). Cut to today, and as of the general election in November 2020, 36 states and 4 US territories allow for medical marijuana use, and 15 states and 3 territories allow for recreational use. Yet Iowa has made little to no progress and continues to be the butt of jokes at national conventions as an example to learn from as reports are cited of overwhelming and disproportionate arrests of our Black and Brown citizens ( ).

It seems as though our federal government has changed course on Marijuana whenever it suited them. In the 1940’s the USDA launched a “Hemp for Victory” campaign to promote hemp for military-grade rope, handing out seeds to farmers to help meet the needs of the agricultural goal for war purposes ( ). From the 1950’s to 1986, mandatory minimum sentencing waivered back and forth being applied and removed. President Reagan’s Anti-Drug Abuse Act returned the equating of marijuana to heroin, and this groundwork for marijuana criminalized was further solidified with President George Bush’s continuation of President Nixon’s War on Drugs. So much for enlightenment. The fact of the matter is, there is no existing FDA treatment for Marijuana Use Disorder ( ) and it is well known that marijuana is often used as a means to self-medicate for various medical conditions ( ). I think it’s also important to nod toward our broken healthcare system by which not all patients have insurance coverage that allows them equitable access to treatment, too many are underinsured meaning that they consume healthcare only for catastrophic events, out-of-pocket costs continue to be barriers to receiving care — not to mention major prescription drug concerns regarding pain management like the Opioid Crisis which took many lives legally — and ( ) where Black and Brown patients have documented experiences receiving different care in pain management than their White counterparts ( ).

So, where does this leave us? This puts us in a position as Iowans to have people who were prescribed treatment in one state to be criminalized when they relocate here. The downstream impacts are disastrous and long-lasting including implications to housing, food assistance, and employment — basically the foundational aspects of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We know all too well also how difficult it has been to get former felons who have completed their sentence the restoration of their voting rights. The theories of what causes diseases of despair are important to familiarize ourselves with in order to understand how substance use is interconnected pain and inequity in healthcare, and how our current healthcare system leaves much to be desired in terms of addressing these existing disparities ( ). If that wasn’t bad enough we know all too well that we have an access problem in providing enough statewide resources to mental health, coupled with the fact that most people reach out when they need help more emergently and not when they are forecasting down the road when they may need some mental health support — that is if they can spare the co-pay or coinsurance for the therapy anyway. Additionally, we have more than enough information to know better than to equate Marijuana with heroin as a Schedule I drug. Here is a study comparing the harms of drugs to one another and rank based on impact on communities and those who use the substance: . As a friend recently said to me, “when we know better, we must do better.”

Yesterday, the Linn County Attorney’s office released a Memorandum regarding a Marijuana Diversion Program policy proposal set to take effect January 1, 2021. I am happy we are beginning to have this long overdue reflection, but the enormity of the task ahead to right-size existing municipal, judicial, state, and federal policies regarding Marijuana is a large feat that we must own. We will need to continue this conversation as agencies and work to understand the role which we serve as a pulley and lever. The opportunities in it include a way out for first time offenders, however I don’t agree with the requirement that one must admit they have a Substance Abuse Disorder. What if they are casual users? What if they are self-medicating? If they were prescribed this therapy in another state where laws are different, how could one accept that they have a problem when the problem might really be where they currently reside?

I am hopeful about the clause that allows for an expungement of the possession offense upon completion of the diversion program. I think about this in terms of a deferred judgment for a traffic violation I couldn’t afford to pay at the time and in a short turnaround. I was required to go a year without any moving violations, whereas this is 180 days and doesn’t include moving violations, and this allows for expungement whereas my traffic violation was dismissed upon successful completion of the expectations. I still have this on my record listed as a deferred judgment, but that deferral was helpful at a time when I did not have the economic inability to afford the fine. I also by no means want to equate a drug charge to a traffic violation, but my point is that expungement is good progress. Having a lingering charge on your record that might not keep up with the times, let alone that might have occurred with a very old version of you, is not helpful to us as a community. Rather, it seeks to indefinitely punish an offender, and while not all felonies are created equal, many are things we can learn from and move past. I’ve had the fortune to meet many former felons who have served their sentence for non-violent crimes and are absolutely productive and contributing members of society. Additionally, we should never convince ourselves that drugs are only used by any one kind of person or group. Instead, what often happens is that wealth disparities allow for inequities, let alone the principle of discretion allows for disproportionate arrests to occur. I can attest to many celebrated community members who have or still do consume drugs and do not have the same consequences of those less resourced. Additionally we know how income and racial inequities are documented locally as evidenced by the data from the 2017 Safe Equitable and Thriving (SET) Task Force which showed that Black Linn County residents earned less than half of the county-wide median income ( ). Maybe race is not confronted directly in the Memorandum, but we all know exactly what role it plays in this context.

So we have to ask ourselves, what are we trying to resolve, and what is the root cause and symptoms of the problem we are identifying. I am optimistic that this policy opens the door to discuss the evolution of marijuana in our community — it starts a conversation. We will need to take a systemic approach and track data to see how many people, what ages, races, socioeconomic statuses, this policy is able to help. Certainly transportation alone can serve to be a barrier to successful completion. It is unlikely on its face to dramatically change the bulk of marijuana arrests in our county because of the clause regarding “no prior felony convictions.” One policy we should consider that seems to be having more impactful change on this front particularly in addressing frequent flyers with multiple drug charges is the LEAD program ( who spoke with Linn County in October 2019. After all, we want to make sure to address the real socio-emotional aspects of what is a concern in our society and support treatment for underlying PTSD someone could be experiencing, not criminalizing the current solution of marijuana use they are self-medicating with, because the underlying mental health concern is the condition, not the Marijuana. It will be important to continue working with our reform partners like the NAACP, LULAC, ACLU, Iowa Legal Aid, and Advocates for Social Justice to name a few to ensure the accuracy of what we are hoping to address. It makes no changes now to address the court costs and costs associated with drug treatment programs that are currently cost-prohibitive — again I speak from experience knowing that not many years ago a $300 fine for me was cost-prohibitive enough for me to reach out and ask for a deferred judgment.

We need to have a serious look in the mirror as a community and state, to assess existing criminalization of marijuana and all of the downstream impacts. We need to think critically as to who is helped, and who is still left behind when policies emerge and get to work on the large task ahead of us in this respect. This coming year, more groundwork will inevitably be laid attempting to address this issue, and I encourage all of us to have a thoughtful conversation and be open to education on these issues so that we too can be enlightened. This initial program has the chance to become a helpful learning experience that could put Linn County on a path to becoming a model community for how to address substance use — and certainly with being the second largest populated county in the state, what we do will set a precedent. It will be important that we as a community take the Linn County Attorney’s Office up on the fifth goal of this Memorandum in being “responsive to the evolving concerns of the community” as we work to rethink what role marijuana serves in our community, and how we should address it. It was this same community collaboration from those early propaganda campaigns that led to the national outcry that got us where we are today, so it seems reasonable that community input can lead to change this conversation locally and even statewide. This is a start, but we have a long way to go Iowa.