Dubuque City Council members this week discussed how the city’s police force might alter its approach when recreational marijuana is legalized next year on the other side of the Mississippi River.

“Being that we’re a border town and Illinois made the decision to legalize recreational use of marijuana, we’re going to see an increased amount of that spread across the river,” said Council Member Brett Shaw.

The discussion came during the council members’ annual goal-setting sessions, in which they collaboratively create a list of priorities for the coming fiscal year. Priorities and goals are used to guide city staffers throughout the budgeting process.

Recreational marijuana will be legal in Illinois starting Jan. 1, and this week, Galena City Council members voted to draft an ordinance that would allow businesses to sell the drug in that community.

Given the coming change, council members and city staff members discussed the potential for more of the drug to make its way into and through Dubuque.

Shaw said he supported Dubuque police officers pulling over drivers suspected of operating their vehicles while intoxicated. But he said he didn’t want Dubuque to be the kind of city that focuses too much on catching anyone suspected of bringing marijuana across the border from Illinois.

“You can overextend that and become kind of a police state of sorts,” he said.

Council Member Kate Larson said she was especially cautious of that kind of focus due to a fear of racial profiling in the judicial system.

In 2013, a study from the America Civil Liberties Union found that Iowa had the largest racial disparity in the country in relation to arrests for marijuana, with black people being about eight times more likely to be arrested than white people even though they used the drug at about the same rate. And in 2018, black people were four times more likely to be arrested as white people for marijuana possession in Wisconsin, according to a Wisconsin Watch review.

“With a disproportionate number of African Americans and people of color being charged with the crime, I can see a correlation there that could be troubling for our city,” Larson said.

Shaw said he would go as far as “decriminalizing it from a city perspective.”

Council Member David Resnick asked staff members if those kinds of shades of gray were allowed or if the city had to follow Iowa law to the T.

City Attorney Crenna Brumwell said there was a difference between police officers or the department choosing not to enforce something, and the City Council putting something on the books.

“A police officer could watch someone drive by who was speeding and not pull them over to give them a ticket,” she said. “It’s still an illegal activity. They’re just not issuing a ticket for it. You couldn’t put a law on the books that says, ‘Nope. It’s fine here.’ That would be in violation of state law. You can’t be less restrictive than the state.”

But Brumwell said the council could provide direction to the Police Department regarding enforcement.

“We don’t have any kind of comprehensive, sane policy for this substance nationwide,” said Council Member Ric Jones. “What we need to do as a city is decide how aggressive we’re going to be.”

Police Chief Mark Dalsing did not attend the council goal-setting session. Reached Wednesday, he said he has had no formal discussions with city leaders regarding the change in Illinois and what it might mean in Dubuque.

“It would be very limited what any internal policy the city might make would do,” he said. “Even without the PD, you would still have the Dubuque County Sheriff’s Department and other agencies that operate in Dubuque. We are still moving forward with the idea that it is still illegal in Iowa and will be treated so.”

But Dalsing doesn’t expect much of an increase in marijuana in the city because of the change.

“We’re not expecting any major changes,” he said. “Right now, people can obtain it illegally. If they mean to obtain it, they can. Maybe a few more people who normally wouldn’t have might go to Illinois and get some, but we’re not expecting much more.”

Contacted by the Telegraph Herald, Dubuque County Sheriff Joe Kennedy said his deputies probably wouldn’t be setting up patrols at the foot of Julien Dubuque Bridge, but they will enforce Iowa law as it is written.

“They may be able to use it, smoke it in Illinois, but they can’t bring that back here,” he said. “We have taken the steps to ensure the officers we have on road patrol are trained to recognize the signs of drug-impaired drivers.”

During the goal-setting session, consultant Lyle Sumek said that, without new federal guidance, cities that he works with across the country are having to grapple with marijuana policies as different states make different rules.

The need to develop a cannabis policy by Dubuque City Council members was one of more than 10 actions that was pitched for the council’s “Vibrant Community: Healthy and Safe” goal. While the topic generated the most discussion in its category, it received a top ranking from only three council members: Shaw, Larson and Luis del Toro.

Each council member was asked for their top four policy actions on the list. Any named by at least half of the six council members and the mayor then was added to a list to be considered to become one of the city’s top priorities for the coming year.

Under the “Vibrant Community” goal, four policy actions garnered enough support — implementation of a crime prevention program, direction toward a brain health strategy and action plan, an expansion of the community security and surveillance system, and finding a location for the long-planned West End fire station.

Those were among about 40 policy actions spanning eight goal categories chosen by a majority of council members during this week’s sessions. A list of the city’s top priorities for the year ahead is expected to be released today.

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