I spoke with Johnson County Attorney candidate John Zimmerman earlier this week. His campaign has caught the attention of cannabis activists around the state — it’s not everyday a Mennonite pastor runs for office promising to stop prosecuting marijuana users.
1. You’re a former Mennonite pastor. How does your faith effect your position on the Drug War?
In several ways. Central to my faith is seeing all people as whole people. Everyone has a complicated story of how they got to be where they are today, and everyone is a mixed bag. No one is as bad as the worst thing about them, and no one is as good as the best thing.
When you’re a pastor, people know that you’re committed to confidentiality, so they tell you things they don’t normally share. No one’s in a position to judge someone else’s journey. Life can be hard and amazing and all sorts of other things. And each of us as individuals reflect that wide range within us.
One thing I learned specifically is that illegal drug use is widespread, ranging from marijuana to hard drugs to prescription drugs. Most people don’t get caught. And plenty of people used at one time in their lives and then later stopped — without any law enforcement intervention. Those who used or use did so for various reasons — some to relax, some to deal with stress, some to self-medicate for mental health issues, some at parties only, and some for health reasons. And it also varied a lot whether the drug use became an addiction. For some, it did. For plenty of others, it didn’t. So I know from people alongside of whom I’ve walked that illegal drug use is not one thing.
But I’ve seen very few cases in which being incarcerated has been a positive thing for the person, as far as getting them away from drug abuse. In the vast majority of cases, arrest mostly just puts the person further in a hole.
I’ve also seen situations in which violent crimes were committed against drug users or dealers, but the victims didn’t think they could go to the police because the context was drug dealing. And so prohibition of drugs has created a Wild West situation in which those involved in black market for drugs aren’t protected from more serious crimes, encouraging violence.
Personally, I’ll add that for the past eight years, I’ve taken a daily anti-depressant. If I don’t take it, I don’t function well or feel okay. And so I know firsthand the importance that a drug (in my case, legal and prescribed) can have in helping a person do okay with life.
2. How has the public’s reception to your message been thus far?
There’s been a lot of enthusiasm! Most people think law enforcement should protect and serve everybody rather than look for reasons to arrest and prosecute people, so a lot of people are open to a fresh approach.
I’m running against a traditionalist incumbent who’s running for a third term, and so folks who know her, are from her generation, and prefer a traditional approach to law enforcement don’t quite know what to do with me.
But there are many people who realize that our current drug policies, including here in Johnson County, are based on a 1980’s way of looking at things that not many of us share anymore.
Plus, there’s frustration with law enforcement chalking up easy arrests for victimless crimes like marijuana possession instead of focusing resources on serious crimes in which people actually get hurt.
3. What are the main issues you want to focus on during your campaign?
An overarching theme of my campaign is ending the current over-prosecution here and replacing it with a truly progressive approach to justice. Ending marijuana prosecutions is central to that — as is dismissing cases based on racial profiling and making sure that people who are poor and people who have money get treated the same.
4. Why should people vote for you?
Johnson County has a progressive reputation, but its criminal justice system has a horrible record. A change in direction is needed.
Law enforcement focuses heavily here on marijuana and public intox, and the policy of the current County Attorney is to have her prosecutors prosecute everything the police bring in. That fills up the system and results in horrible stats:
* African-American people are eight times more likely to be charged for marijuana in Johnson County than are white people — one of the worst racial disparities in the country (nationally the disparity is 4 to 1);
* one in eight University of Iowa students graduate with a criminal record;
* our county jail is overcrowded, with 80% of the inmates not having had their day in court yet and 40% of them being African-American in a county with a 5% black population.
Thinking about marijuana, if 7-8% of people smoke marijuana, which is a statistic I’ve seen, that means we have something like 10,000 marijuana smokers here in Johnson County. Probably a thousand people could be arrested a night! But instead, it’s six or eight people who get arrested and prosecuted because those are the ones the police search. That’s why it’s mostly people of color.
If elected, my policies for the prosecutors will make Johnson County the national model of progressive justice focused on protecting and serving all rather than continuing out-dated policies focused on victimless offenses and controlling people of color.
5. How do you feel other County Attorneys in the state view the Drug War? Do you know of any vocal County Attorneys who support your message?
I honestly haven’t heard from other County Attorneys, but nationally, Attorney General Eric Holder is changing policies to move federal prosecutions in directions similar to what I’m suggesting, because of many of the same concerns.
6. What do you see as the biggest challenge to you being elected to county attorney?
Honestly, turnout. It’s a primary election, so turn-out is typically very low, usually under 10,000. The people who always vote in such elections tend to be older, more establishment folks. For me to win, it will take a large turnout of people who usually only vote in general elections — especially people who are younger.
7. Have you spoken with local law enforcement in Johnson County? How have they responded to your message?
The officers with whom I’ve talked have a variety of views, though I haven’t heard much criticism for my commitment not to prosecute for marijuana. On public intoxication, there’s been more push-back. But I had an officer tell me earlier this week that he thought most officers would rather have an alcohol detox location to take badly drunk people rather than charge them criminally. I think that’s a great idea, and I’m eager to work with law enforcement to come up with creative solutions that actually do protect and serve.
8. Where can people go to find more information on your campaign?
9. What can people do to support your campaign?
For people who live in Johnson County, spread the word! Talk with people about my campaign. And get them connected to us, as well.
For people elsewhere in Iowa, a big need is money. I’m an insurgent running against an establishment candidate, so there are worries that she will try to win the election by spending huge amounts of money. We are focusing right now on the number of donors rather than the amount donated, and our goal is 420 donors by 4/20! The two ways to donate are to donate online through our campaign website or mail checks to Zimmerman for County Attorney, PO Box 3481, Iowa City, IA 52244.
10. How can County Attorneys use their discretion to bring change to the State of Iowa in regards to current Drug War policy?
The County Attorney sets the policies for the county prosecutors and has huge discretion. The American Bar Association’s guidelines say specifically that prosecutors aren’t expected to prosecute all violations of the law — there’s so many cases that that would be impossible. But the ABA guidelines also say that a reason not to prosecute is that the likely punishment is too great for the offense.
That’s the reason the Obama administration is having its prosecutors pull back on drug prosecutions. The Obama administration also did this with deportations of non-citizens. Even though the law didn’t change, they decided not to try to deport people who grew up in the U.S., finished school, and are staying out of major trouble. The law still says to deport those folks, but they are using their discretion to focus on other things.