As other states ease the impact of marijuana convictions, Iowans continue to face harsh consequences

Lee Rood
Des Moines Register

Fourth in an occasional series.

When Matt Becke walks across the stage in May next year to accept his law degree in the state of Washington, a decade will have passed since he was let out of prison in Iowa.

If he is accepted into the Iowa state bar, a formidable hurdle for a felon, Becke says he will most likely begin practicing criminal law. As someone with multiple convictions tied to marijuana use, he believes he’ll be able to relate with defendants more than most attorneys.

 “I’m seeking the capacity to be a lawyer so I can help people who have been where I have been,” the 36-year-old said. “But I also want to effect structural change.”

The change Becke seeks is to roll back the collateral consequences faced by thousands of Iowans who have fulfilled criminal sentences tied to possessing and using marijuana. Though adult pot use and possession is no longer illegal in a growing number of states, they remain so in Iowa. For convicted offenders, legal and regulatory sanctions greatly limit or prohibit their access to jobs, professional licenses, housing, voting, education and other opportunities.

Matthew Becke studies at Gonzaga University School of Law. With a felony marijuana conviction in Iowa, he failed to gain admission at schools in his home state.

Those lasting effects are particularly hard on Black and brown Americans — arrested at a higher rate for marijuana offenses than whites, though research has shown whites use marijuana just as often.

Across the U.S., 91% of adults believe medical or recreational marijuana should be legal, and 60% back legalization of both, according to 2021 polling for the Pew Charitable Trusts. As both legal and illegal marijuana use has expanded across the country, politicians from both political parties have increasingly joined legalization advocates who say too many families are still suffering outsized consequences for old marijuana-related offenses.

In Iowa, marijuana charges have risen even as other states move to legalize pot

Since 2016, lawmakers across the country have enacted dozens of laws facilitating expungement of marijuana convictions and other relief, such as sealing cases or allowing reductions in charges.

California adopted systematic procedures to seal cases and reduce marijuana arrests and convictions without requiring individuals to go through an application and review process. Pennsylvania’s Clean Slate Act of 2018 granted automatic relief for a range of convictions, including marijuana-related felonies. New Jersey, New Mexico, New York and Virginia, which legalized recreational marijuana this year, all included automatic expungement provisions in their legislation.

Matt Becke, 36, wants to work on changing marijuana laws when he graduates from law school in May 2022.

Amid the prolonged pandemic, some industry experts argue legal marijuana’s explosive sales revenue growth could help bail America out of the economic hardship caused by COVID-19 in the same way that ending Prohibition and resurrecting the bar and liquor industries contributed to recovery from the Great Depression. 

But in Iowa, state leaders have been reticent to expand the state's medical cannabis statute, one of the most restrictive in the country. They also have enacted minor reforms to criminal statutes compared to other states, even though data shows more and more Iowans are being charged with marijuana-related offenses. 

In the five years leading up to the pandemic, as both legal and illegal pot sales grew across the United States, marijuana-related criminal charges in Iowa increased nearly 30% and convictions increased 66%. In 2019, 13,222 charges were filed, compared to 10,250 in 2015, according to Iowa’s Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning. In 2019, Iowa logged 7,814 convictions compared to 5,196 in 2015.

The COVID-19 pandemic reduced case numbers for both law enforcement and Iowa courts. Still, marijuana charges have accounted for roughly 33% to 38% of all drug charges handled in Iowa since at least 2015, the state figures show.

Like Becke, many pot users with multiple convictions eventually wind up in prison. Since at least 2008, marijuana-related cases have been second only to those involving methamphetamine as the primary source of drug convictions resulting in new state prison admissions, according to Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning data.

How a weed conviction punishes a person for years 

Becke served his sentence in 2011, spending eight months behind bars in the Newton Correctional Facility after getting caught at a party the day after Christmas 2010 in Carroll with 3 ounces of marijuana. He previously had four marijuana-related misdemeanor convictions.

More:Los Angeles County drops 60K marijuana convictions to clear 'barriers' in today's society, hopes to spur national trend

At the time of his 2011 arrest, his brother and sister were both legally selling marijuana in Durango, Colorado, one of the first states to legalize recreational use for adults. But for Becke in Iowa, the consequences of selling weed in his 20s lasted well after his release in 2012.

Every time he would apply for a job, he said, he had to check a box that asked if he’d been convicted of a felony. Generally, the only places willing to hire him were in the service industry.

Becke said he was required as part of his sentence to go to drug treatment, but his driver’s license was suspended. He also lost his voting rights, and, as a felon, had trouble finding housing.

“You put people through the criminal justice system, but then you punish them more and make them feel more ostracized from society, incentivizing them to just give up,” he said. “Life begins to look so bleak, and a lot of people do give up. They tell you to pull yourself up by the bootstraps, but they’ve already cut you off at the knees.”

The restrictions don’t just affect housing, employment or one’s ability to drive. Federal law bans or restricts the provision of food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families grants and public housing for those who have served time for drug possession. A conviction can keep someone from becoming a naturalized citizen. Students convicted of drug violations can’t get student loans or grants for a year after their first conviction and two years after their second.

More:Veterans push for medical marijuana in conservative South

Becke said he began to realize what the convictions of his youth had cost him when he got to prison, and that cost was even more apparent after he was released.

He got escorted off the property of a downtown Des Moines school where he been given a position as an Americorps volunteer when school officials learned he had a felony record. He couldn’t become a teacher, as he had hoped, and had trouble securing an apartment.

“Once they get you in that system, they make it very, very difficult for you to get out,” he said. “I paid around $17,000 in fines over my lifetime, and I spent my time in prison and completed everything the state wanted, and still that felony follows me around.”

With the support of his family, however, Becke pursued an education at Des Moines Area Community College, then Drake University, where he got a bachelor’s degree.

Becke assumes, but can never know for sure, that the reason he was rejected by the law schools at Drake University and the University of Iowa and law schools in Kansas, Minnesota and Nebraska was because of his marijuana convictions. Only universities in states on the West Coast, where medical and recreational marijuana is legal, would accept him, he said.

With letters of support from the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa and others, as well as years of volunteering, he was eventually able to get into the Gonzaga University School of Law in Spokane.

Becke is the father of two young children who live in Iowa, and he said he tries to be as involved as he can in their lives while finishing law school there.

He said he was lucky. Others have it worse.

Iowa among nation's worst states for racial disparities in marijuana arrests

A Black person in Iowa is 7.3 times more likely to be arrested than a white person for marijuana possession, even though both groups use marijuana at about the same rate, a national ACLU study of law enforcement data in 2020 found.

Iowa ranked fifth-worst in the nation in racial disparities for marijuana arrests, the study found. Only Montana, Kentucky, Illinois and West Virginia had worse racial disparities. On average nationally, a Black person is 3.64 times more likely to be arrested.

Iowa ACLU Executive Director Mark Stringer has said those statistics reflect systemic discrimination and underscore an urgent need for Iowa to rework its criminal laws and policing practices.

Lawmakers passed a new law that went into effect in 2019 allowing for expungement in limited misdemeanor cases. The law allows a person to seek expungement for one case, but only at least eight years after the case's disposition and payment of all court costs and fees. 

A bill introduced this year by Rep. Mary Wolfe, a Clinton Democrat, would have gone a step further and allowed expungement of nonviolent felonies 10 years after a completed sentence. The bipartisan bill set out several requirements, including that the person has paid all court costs, fines and restitution.

More:Justin Bieber, Martha Stewart and more promote cannabis use: Experts weigh in on THC vs. CBD

That measure, more restrictive than others that have passed in states where recreational marijuana is legal, passed the Iowa House, but not the Senate.

Alex Kornya, litigation director at Iowa Legal Aid, said the nonprofit organization has been trying to work with partners — churches, the NAACP, cities, counties, even Iowa Workforce Development — to help people who continue to struggle as a result of mostly minor marijuana convictions in Iowa.

He estimated more than 2,500 people have sought and received help with expungements and other consequences.

“As time goes on, there’s more and more recognition of the importance of expungement and being able to turn the page,” he said.

Among other things, he said, Iowa Legal Aid has developed software that can more easily identify the barriers that exist for people who have had court involvement and how they might be helped.

Iowa Legal Aid also holds clinics away from courthouses, in locations where people feel comfortable, so staff and attorneys can help them.

In Iowa, people who have deferred judgments can eventually get crimes expunged after fulfilling the terms of their probation, as well as paying court debt.

“But debt is the biggest barrier to these people,” Kornya said. “People who are low income may still owe a court fine, jail costs, as well as the cost of their defense.”

Law student with pot record uncertain whether he can return to Iowa after graduation

Becke said Iowa and other states suffer self-inflicted losses because of thousands of people who can’t legally re-enter the workforce.

“If you have a criminal history of marijuana, you can’t even work in (the marijuana) industry" in some states,” he said.

President Joe Biden has said he supports the federal decriminalization of marijuana, which would do away with federal prison time for minor offenses but would stop short of making the drug legal for recreational use. He has said he supports reclassifying cannabis to a Schedule II illicit drug from the current Schedule I — the same classification as heroin and LSD — so researchers can further study its positive and negative effects.

Biden has not joined other Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, in calling for full legalization of recreational marijuana.

The difference, still to be decided, is whether marijuana will be treated nationally as an illicit substance or a legal product similar to alcohol or tobacco.

In December last year, the U.S. House passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement, or MORE, Act, which would de-schedule cannabis and enact reforms, including expungement of prior convictions. The bill stalled in the GOP-led Senate, but passed the House Judiciary Committee again in September.

More:Three months after Sha'Carri Richardson's Olympics disqualification, the World Anti-Doping Agency announces it will re-examine marijuana as banned substance

In the meantime, Becke's future still hinges on what others make of his past convictions.

To eventually sit for the bar exam in Iowa, he will have to apply for, and pass, a character and fitness test before the Iowa board of law examiners. 

He's hoping the examiners understand the price he's already paid and how seriously he wants to make a difference.

These days, he works at a nonprofit in Spokane called The Way to Justice, helping people, one by one, get back on their feet after being incarcerated.

When he finishes law school, he said, he wants to do more than help people one at a time. “Because sometimes," he said, "it feels like you're just chopping the heads off weeds.”

Lee Rood's Reader's Watchdog column helps Iowans get answers and accountability from public officials, the justice system, businesses and nonprofits. Reach her at lrood@registermedia.com, at 515-284-8549, on Twitter at @leerood or on Facebook at Facebook.com/readerswatchdog.