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Should pot laws be relaxed? Some say it’s time to think about it

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GREENFIELD — Earlier this month, a group of friends was sitting in an apartment when they heard an unexpected knock at the door.

The police officer on the other side was there to ask about an illegally parked car after receiving a complaint. But several of them had been smoking marijuana, and the police officer at the door could smell it.

Minutes later, they were all in police custody, handcuffed and headed to jail on criminal charges including possession of marijuana, a Class A misdemeanor.

But for Michelle Atkins, the 21-year-old tenant, the charge is a felony. Maintaining a common nuisance – effectively, being the person in whose home people are using drugs – carries a penalty of up to three years in prison and $10,000 in fines.

An increasing number of states – Colorado and Washington among the most recent – are taking steps to legalize or at least decriminalize marijuana use. The issue is being discussed more in Indiana as well: State senators are talking about decriminalization, a lesser step than outright legalization.

Indiana State Police Superintendent Paul Whitesell made waves this week when he told lawmakers he favored legalization, a stance that is uncommon among law enforcement.

Supporters argue the cost of prosecuting what some view as a minor offense is counterproductive and bogs down an already overburdened court system.

Opponents contend legalizing marijuana or punishing possession with no more severity than a traffic ticket encourages use of a “gateway” drug that could lead to abuse of other, more dangerous, substances.

For Atkins, it’s a moot point. While one Indiana lawmaker has penned a bill in favor of decriminalizing marijuana, the matter is a long way from coming before the Legislature for a vote. Atkins goes to court next month.

The 2010 Greenfield-Central High School graduate admits this wasn’t her first run-in with the law; she was arrested two years ago on similar charges and spent four months in jail when she couldn’t pay her court fees.

Those were misdemeanor charges. Today, Atkins worries a felony charge could more severely affect her future.

“I just thought, ‘prison,’” Atkins said on a recent afternoon in her apartment. “That’s all I thought about was prison.”

Atkins, the single mother of 10-month-old Landon, already has lost her job at a fast-food restaurant as a result of her arrest. She posted bail with her last paycheck, one she’d been planning to put toward her son’s Christmas presents.

Now, she’s searching for a job and hoping to land something before she gets evicted.

“I just try to think, ‘All right, well, if this doesn’t work, what am I gonna do?” Atkins said. “That’s all I keep thinking about – what am I gonna do?”

Since 2007, there have been 1,303 criminal cases filed against defendants in Hancock County for possession of marijuana, according to records from the county prosecutor’s office.

Of those cases, more than 80 percent were misdemeanor counts for possession of less than 30 grams. In Indiana, carrying more than 30 grams is a felony; in the eyes of the law, that amount suggests the person is selling it.

While the tide might be turning in some parts of the country, Hancock County Prosecutor Michael Griffin is one who stands firmly on the side of keeping marijuana illegal.

“It’s a very piecemeal way of going about fighting drugs to say, ‘Let’s just legalize marijuana,’” Griffin said. “That’s just throwing gas on the fire. Definitely, there are people who only use marijuana and never try another drug, … but there are plenty enough who begin with that and then go on to other things.”

The number of local marijuana possession cases has declined somewhat in the past few years since the joint city/county drug task force dissolved in 2010, Griffin said, but local law enforcement remains aggressive in trying to get drugs off the streets.

Proponents of legalizing marijuana say it would alleviate a multitude of problems, including overcrowding in jails across the country.

But the stress on the jail from marijuana-related offenses, at least in Hancock County, is negligible, as most defendants arrested on possession charges post bond and are out within a day or two, Griffin said.

Hancock County Jail Commander Capt. Andy Craig said the jail has a policy that requires those arrested on possession charges to be held for at least 24 hours in order to eliminate any possible impairment.

“And then some of those, of course, can’t bond out,” he said.

In 2011, possession of marijuana was the seventh-most common charge among arrestees booked into the jail, according to the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department. In 2010, it was the fourth-most common. Operating a vehicle while intoxicated topped the list both years.

Phil Miller, founder of the Hancock County Libertarian Party, argues law enforcement’s time is wasted on targeting marijuana users.

Miller pointed to the arrest of Atkins and her friends as a prime example.

“(Officers) would have had time to be out, being on the street and being seen, rather than being at an apartment … to put a bunch of kids in jail,” he said.

Miller is a former city councilman who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2011.

Had he been elected, he said, he would have brought in speakers from the Massachusetts-based advocacy group, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, to speak to city police officers.

While Miller knows he would not have had any power to change local laws, his goal would be to educate those he feels have been misled about the supposed dangers of marijuana use.

“Nobody’s ever gotten an overdose from marijuana,” Miller said. “They may have overdosed on the Twinkies afterward. Marijuana is not a dangerous drug at all.”

Like many Libertarians who favor limited government and regulation, Miller  said society would be better off if marijuana was regulated and taxed. He compared it to the state’s control of alcohol and said that, given enough time, society could treat its use in much the same way.

“If it became commonplace, it would be just like alcohol,” said Miller. “You’d see some advertisements – ‘Don’t smoke and drive’ – but that’d be it.”

Greenfield Police Chief John Jester admits some ambivalence on whether marijuana should be legalized, but he said his officers are prepared to adjust to whatever the law requires.

Jester admits processing the evidence in marijuana cases can be time-consuming for the responding officers.

“We have to have it tested and prepared for court, should it go to court, so yeah, it takes up a considerable amount of time,” he said.

Miller said legalizing marijuana would make its purchase safer for recreational users. He remembered an instance in which a man’s young daughter was shot during a drug deal in Indianapolis after her father had a dispute with the dealer.

“If Dad had an argument with Mr. Wal-Mart, that little girl would still be alive,” Miller said. “Nobody would have gotten shot. The war on drugs honestly does more harm to people than the drugs themselves.”

Griffin said the so-called war on drugs is a misnomer, because wars have a beginning and an end.

“This is a never-ending battle,” he said. “As a society, we can never say ‘I give up on you.’ ”

While there might be no end in sight, progress is still being made, Griffin said.

Griffin points to offenders who successfully complete the county’s drug-court program, which aims to reduce recidivism.

Those who qualify for the Hancock County Drug Court are required to complete weeks of classes and pass drug tests throughout in return for avoiding incarceration and ultimately having their charges dropped. When successful, the result is person who can return to society with a decreased likelihood of re-offending and a future not marred by a criminal conviction.

While some argue that marijuana does not have the physically addictive components of some other drugs, it can be an equally hard habit to kick, Griffin said.

“… It’s psychologically addictive,” he said. “Your body may not demand a drug, but your mind may.”

Griffin said that not every minor possession charge merits a conviction, nor does it best address the offender’s needs. He prefers drug court to direct prosecution.

“When you have relapses – and substance abuse is inherently full of relapses – what does the criminal justice system do?” he said. “It simply arrests you and charges you one more time.”

No one knows that better than Atkins, whose possession charges were elevated to felonies because of her prior history.

Sitting on her living room couch, she wondered how long it might be before she’ll have to move out if she can’t come up with rent money.

“I worry every day,” she said.

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