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Local lawmakers: Initiatives to reduce penalties or make pot legal will go nowhere

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INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana is a long way from easing laws on marijuana use, local lawmakers say, despite a growing trend across the country to relax enforcement and a growing debate here to decriminalize the drug.

Bills will likely come before state lawmakers early next year to decriminalize marijuana, which would make possession of small amounts of pot a civil infraction as opposed to a criminal one. This week, Indiana’s police chief told lawmakers marijuana should be legalized and taxed – a step beyond decriminalizing it, and an idea generally shunned by law enforcement.

But Indiana is a conservative state, and Rep. Bob Cherry, R-Greenfield, says relaxing rules on marijuana is not likely anytime soon.

“It’s not going to happen, or at least, I don’t see it,” Cherry said. “Even the people that would support it, they say their constituents are not in favor of it…. I would assume it’s very unlikely. The governor-elect (Mike Pence) has said he doesn’t support it, so if the general assembly would pass it, he would veto it.”

Cherry echoes the concern of many opponents, saying marijuana would lead to abuse of other drugs and legalizing it would only open the flood gates.

“I think Indiana is conservative, but I also think there are a lot of states that are conservative,” he said. “What I am afraid, it’s a gateway to other drugs, and we’ve got a problem with drugs in our schools, our community.”

Still, other states weary of trying to fight the illegal sales of the drug have come around to the idea of regulating it instead.

Voters in Colorado and Washington voted to legalize the recreational use of marijuana Nov. 6, regulating the production and possession of pot for people 21 and older. Twenty-three other states have eased up on restrictions for marijuana either for recreational or medical use.

In Indiana, possessing 30 grams or less of marijuana is a Class A misdemeanor on the first offense and carries a sentence of up to one year. Possession of more than 30 grams – roughly an ounce – is a Class D felony that carries a sentence of one to three years.

Democratic Sen. Karen Tallian and Republican Sen. Brent Steele are proposing change. Both have said they will propose legislation in 2013 to decriminalize marijuana, making possession of some pot a civil infraction carrying a fine rather than jail time for a misdemeanor conviction..

Tuesday, Indiana State Police Superintendent Paul Whitesell spoke in favor legalizing and taxing marijuana, saying the drug is here, and “it’s going to stay.”

“If it were up to me, I do believe I would legalize and tax it, particularly in sight of the fact that several other states have now come to that part of their legal system as well,” Whitesell said.

But Whitesell’s own agency quickly backtracked, saying the statement was more of a philosophical opinion and not an official one.

State Sen.-elect Mike Crider, R-Greenfield, said he was surprised at Whitesell’s comments.

“I think it’s pretty well accepted that marijuana is a gateway drug, and it does lead to experimentation with behavior drugs in most cases,” said Crider, who formerly was the top law enforcement officer for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. “I’m not sure that’s the case in every situation, but it’s pretty well-known that’s kind of the scenario.”

Crider said it’s hard to tell whether the bill will be heard in the Senate this year. It depends on what committee it’s assigned to and whether the committee leader wants to advance it. While Crider heard from constituents in favor of the issue while campaigning this year, he remains opposed.

“There’s been quite a bit of discussion about what other states have done and maybe the benefits of having it become a prescription or regulated,” he said. “I’m just not convinced that there’s any good method of controlling it, and so my concern is it opens the door I’m not sure we want to open. So, I want to be watching, real closely, the debates.”

Even if a bill is heard in the Senate, it likely wouldn’t be heard in the House. Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, oversees the Courts and Criminal Code Committee and said he might not let a bill on decriminalizing marijuana be heard in the committee. If the committee doesn’t advance it, it can’t be heard by the full House.

Steuerwald said a primary concern is ensuring police officers have the equipment to test motorists operating while under the influence of marijuana.

“We have a tremendous amount of work to do before we’d ever get to that point,” he said. “I think if anything, it needs to have a summer study committee, not just a committee during the session, because there’s also the fiscal impact; how do we get ready for simply the OWI section of it; testing for driving. What’s that going to cost, and what are we going to have to do to get ready for that?”

House Speaker Brian Bosma, who now represents the northeast part of Hancock County, deferred questions on the matter to Steuerwald.

Still, supporters of decriminalizing marijuana say prosecuting those who possess pot crowds state prisons and damages young offenders’ futures with a criminal record.

“As a practicing attorney, I’ve seen a significant amount of state dollars spent on prosecuting and incarcerating individuals caught with small amounts of marijuana,” said Steele, R-Bedford, said in a statement. “We have to ask ourselves if this is the best use of our criminal justice resources.”

This isn’t the first time marijuana-related legislation has been pitched in the Indiana General Assembly. According to the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group, Republican Rep. Tom Knollman introduced medical marijuana legislation in January 2012, but it died in committee.

Tallian introduced a marijuana decriminalizing bill this year, but that also died in committee.

Tallian, D-Portage, could not be reached for comment Friday, but she was quoted as saying in November that the state’s current system of incarcerating people carrying pot “takes too much toll on the criminal justice system, and it accomplishes absolutely nothing.”

“Prohibition didn’t work. This doesn’t work,” she said. “It’s time to get rid of it.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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