Pubdate: Thu, 10 May 2007
Source: Daily Iowan, The (IA Edu)
Copyright: 2007 The Daily Iowan
Author: Emileigh Barnes
Bookmark: (Cannabis)


In Iowa City, marijuana reigns supreme.

An analysis by The Daily Iowan shows that approximately 60 percent of 
all drug arrests in Iowa City in the past five years were for 
possession of marijuana. But the marijuana-related arrests have led 
to a host of other problems, and the effects of the high rates are 
evident throughout Iowa City, officials said.

"[Sixty percent] does not sound high to me; I would not have been 
surprised if you had told me it had been a little higher," Iowa City 
police Sgt. Troy Kelsay said, adding it's easy to recognize and cite 
people for possessing the drug. "The classic Cheech and Chong: They 
roll down the window and a cloud of smoke comes out. It doesn't take 
long to recognize the smell of burnt marijuana."

He said the high instances of marijuana in Iowa City could be because 
the drug is cheap compared with other drugs, and the community has "a 
wide range of opinions as to how bad of a substance it is or how 
socially correct or incorrect use is."

State data from 2006 confirm that marijuana is one of the most 
commonly seized drugs in Iowa. In that year, Iowa's Drug Task Force 
seized almost 2,000 pounds of processed marijuana and more than 
27,000 marijuana plants. The street value for those drugs would be 
more than $12 million - second in value only to methamphetamine busts.

"Marijuana is readily available," Kelsay said.

Johnson County Jail data from 2002 - the most current available - 
show that since 1994, the number of people booked into Johnson County 
Jail for drug possession has more than doubled. In 2002, drug 
possession accounted for around 12 percent of all bookings. The 
majority of those were for marijuana, Johnson County Sheriff Lonny 
Pulkrabek said, adding that he wasn't sure of the exact number.

The sheriff said he sees the effect of having too many arrests and 
not enough space every day. Diminishing the number of people spending 
only a day or two in the jail would relieve large amounts of the 
stress on the system, he said.

"It's not uncommon on weekends for there to be a line of officers 
waiting to bring inmates into the jail," Pulkrabek said.

One student who went to jail for marijuana possession was UI cinema 
major Ron Reynolds.

Reynolds was sitting on the couch at a friend's apartment when police 
conducted a search. He had been playing Guitar Hero when authorities 
came in, part of a tip they had received that the owners of the 
residence may have been harboring illegal substances.

But once inside, police located less than an eighth of an ounce, 
resting on the coffee table beside Reynolds.

"Everyone in the house got arrested," he said.

Once booked into jail, arrestees are placed into holding cells. These 
cells are concrete cubes piled high with fading blue-green mattresses 
and one metal toilet.

On a given night, more than 30 people can share one holding cell 
without pillows, sheets, or a bathroom door. And if bed space is 
available, someone charged with simple possession could double bunk 
with accused felons.

Pulkrabek has long argued that a cite-and-release program for people 
caught with small amounts of marijuana could help ease jail 
overcrowding in Johnson County. He hadn't completely defined what "a 
small amount" might mean, he said.

But he has faced some obstacles to his catch-and-release proposal, 
not only from local residents who think the penalty wouldn't be 
stringent enough but also from regulations in Iowa law.

"The law still holds it as a serious misdemeanor [and as so, 
offenders] still need to get booked in the jail at some point in 
time," Pulkrabek said. "I still hold the same opinion, and we are 
working through the chiefs and the county attorney about developing a 
cite-and-release program, but there are several unanswered questions."

Pulkrabek said until he and public officials can answer these 
questions, the program will not move forward.

"Because of the large number of people we're booking in, if there was 
one more group of people we didn't have to book in that would free us 
up for other offenses," he said.

Pulkrabek said inmates demand the majority of their resources in the 
first 12 to 24 hours of jail time, "because that takes more staff 
time to book someone in and book them back out rather than to book 
someone in, and they're held here for 30 days."

"I don't want to be seen in a light that I support marijuana users, 
but [jail overcrowding] is just a problem I'd like to see addressed," 
Pulkrabek said.

Although the situation may appear to be dire, overcrowding is no new 
problem in Johnson County.

The jail was originally designed to hold fewer than half its current 
92-inmate capacity.

In 2001, officials began using correctional facilities in Cedar, 
Dubuque, Iowa, Linn, Benton, Muscatine, and Jefferson Counties to 
house inmates from Johnson County who couldn't be squeezed into the 
jail. Four years after that, Pulkrabek reorganized the jail and 
increased the total capacity from approximately 80 people to today's 
maximum of 92 inmates.

Despite the added bed space, more than 110 inmates are forced to cram 
into the facility on some nights. Inmates are still being shipped out 
of county to make room for new inmates, which isn't a cheap endeavor.

Total costs for shipping inmates to neighboring facilities can exceed 
$1,000 a day, jail statistics show. And the problem isn't 
disappearing. As of April 29 - the last day of data available - the 
jail's population was at 100, with 32 prisoners sent to neighboring counties.

Darren Josephson contributed to this report.
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman