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February 26, 2013

Hayden: Indiana criminal code fix and pot

Marijuana still a part of Statehouse sentencing reform

— In the flurry of activity at the Statehouse in recent weeks, I missed reporting some sad news for stoners: The legislation to decriminalize marijuana is dead.

State Sen. Karen Tallian’s bill to make possession of 2 ounces of marijuana into an infraction, like a speeding ticket, died when it didn’t get a hearing in the Committee on Corrections and Criminal Law before a critical deadline passed.

Tallian’s response was anything but mellow. The Democratic grandmother from Ogden Dunes told Dan Carden, a reporter for The Times of Northwest Indiana: “I don’t understand why they refused to even hear it. We have certainly heard some really idiotic bills in that committee.”

Setting aside the question of idiocy in the General Assembly, here’s news that may hearten those who’ve been following the pot debate: Legislation that would roll back Indiana’s marijuana laws — some of the toughest in the nation — is still very much alive.

Tucked inside a 400-plus page bill to overhaul Indiana’s criminal code is language that would turn most felony-level marijuana crimes into mere misdemeanors. It puts an end to the reefer madness of a past General Assembly that made possession of marijuana a felony, if you’d been caught once before or had more than 1 ounce.  

So it would still be a crime to get caught with cannabis, but no longer a crime that could land you in prison or make you automatically lose your driver’s license.

The four co-authors of the criminal code reform bill make for an interesting alliance. The two conservative Republican authors are Hendricks County lawyer Greg Steuerwald and former deputy prosecutor Jud McMillin of Brookville. The two liberal Democratic authors are Bloomington lawyer Matt Pierce and retired Hammond police officer Linda Lawson.

They all had a role to play in crafting a bill that’s been several years in the making and has won strong bipartisan support. Together last week to talk about it, none of the co-authors said the word “marijuana”, though I think they should have if they wanted to get good media coverage.

As Time magazine reported last week, “pot is having a political moment” as the push to lessen penalties for marijuana has moved from the margins to mainstream.

Tallian’s bill was a pipe dream — no way is this General Assembly ready to join the 14 states that have decriminalized possession (or the handful of other states that have started down that path).

But it wasn’t without some hope: Late last year, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brent Steele — a rock-ribbed, law-and-order guy if there ever was one — came out in support of Tallian’s proposal. He likened Indiana’s marijuana laws to “smashing an ant with a sledgehammer.”

Steele backed off after he decided the idea wasn’t politically palatable to his conservative colleagues — at least not yet.

Remember that committee chairman who wouldn’t give Tallian’s bill a hearing? He’s promised Tallian that he’ll research the issue before next year’s session. Maybe that’s a sign that decriminalization isn’t dead, just dormant.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for CNHI newspapers in Indiana, including the Kokomo Tribune. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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