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January 20, 2013

Will Indiana put pot in its place?

Both Republicans, Democrats call for lighter penalties

Indianapolis — On the subject of Indiana’s marijuana laws, state Sen. Karen Tallian may be in the minority for the present, but even on the other side of the political aisle, she’s gaining some allies.

The Michigan City Democrat has been in the media for her marijuana bill, which proposes turning most possession offenses into an infraction, the same as a speeding ticket. The law doesn’t consider an infraction to be a criminal offense.

Tallian talks about a female constituent, who as a teen was convicted of marijuana possession. Five years later, the young woman is being told her past offense disqualifies her for a teaching assistant position, Tallian said.

“Is this the kind of message we want to send to our kids? You make a mistake one time, and it can negatively affect your career for the rest of your life?” Tallian asked.

The idea of decriminalization, as opposed to outright legalization, appears to be gaining traction in Indiana. A 2012 survey by the Bowen Center for Public Affairs at Ball State University found 53 percent of Indiana residents support the idea of a ticket for possessing small amounts of marijuana, with 41 percent in opposition.

But the idea of decriminalization has found little traction in the General Assembly, replaced instead by a push to bring down penalties for pot and other drug crimes.

Under major legislation backed by prosecutors and police groups, the penalties for most felony-level marijuana crimes would be reduced to misdemeanors. And people caught possessing or selling the drug would no longer automatically lose their driver’s license.

The bill, put forward by state Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, would roll back Indiana’s marijuana laws — some of the toughest in the nation — that make possession a felony unless it’s a first-time offense or the amount is less than 1 ounce.

That’s significant, because in Indiana, unlike many states, the threat of prison still hangs over marijuana possession. The Indiana prison system processed more than 400 inmates in 2011 whose most serious offense was a felony possession charge.

The proposed changes are contained in a 422-page proposed overhaul of Indiana’s criminal code, a document arrived at through four years of summer study sessions, failed legislation and research — a bill with a stated the goal of making punishment more proportionate to the crime.

Its backers say the goal is to reserve prison for the most serious offenders, while getting drug addicts and low-level offenders into treatment to reduce recidivism.

“What’s fair is what’s right, and this bill makes our laws more fair,” Steele said.

Steele, the influential conservative chairman of the Senate courts and corrections committee, made headlines late last year when he called for decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana.

Steele still supports the idea, saying it would save courts and prosecutors money by not having to go after small-time users. But he decided it wasn’t politically palatable to his conservative colleagues.

So he pulled back on language he wanted to see in the larger, criminal-code reform bill that would have made possession of 10 grams of marijuana or less just a Class C infraction, punishable with a $500 fine and no jail time.

“Where I come from, $500 is serious money,” said Steele. “Maybe to the big boys here Indianapolis it’s not much, but down home it is.”

Like Steele, Tallian questions the need to treat possession of small amounts of marijuana as a criminal offense, saying each year, Indiana courts have to process between 12,000 and 15,000 marijuana possession cases.

She questioned how valuable those prosecutions are to society, when studies show essentially no change in the past 40 years in marijuana use by college students.

“Every one of those cases requires the original arrest, the booking, the bail, a first court appearance and probably two more court appearances, prosecutorial review of the case and the sentence,” Tallian said. “It costs a tremendous amount of time and money to prosecute these cases.”

Steele said he doubts Tallian’s bill will get out of committee, but some of its language could end up in an amendment to the larger, criminal-code reform bill that he’s pushing hard to pass.

Steele’s bill deals with a host of drug offenses, not just with marijuana. For example, it proposes to change laws which punish someone caught near a school with a few grams of cocaine with a harsher penalty than a rapist.

Getting caught selling marijuana near a school is currently a Class C felony, which carries a prison term of two to eight years. In the criminal-code reform bill, it would drop to a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by no more than a year in jail.

But decriminalizing marijuana is likely to find little support in the General Assembly.

It’s opposed by Steele’s counterpart in the House, Republican state Rep. Greg Steuerwald of Avon, who is sponsoring legislation identical to Steele’s bill.

And it’s strongly opposed by the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, whose members played a key role in derailing legislation two years ago that would have softened drug penalties.

The council also played a critical role in crafting the framework for the current criminal-code reform bill. “We were absolutely united in our opposition to decriminalization,” said Dave Powell, the council’s executive director.

Andrew Cullen, legislative liaison for the Indiana Public Defenders Council, said crimes should be treated in “proportion to the harm they cause in society.”

“No one is in favor of the use of drugs, but we [need] to incarcerate people who are public safety threats, and not just citizens we’ve become upset with,” Cullen said.

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