Marijuana legalization and reducing the penalties for possessing the drug are burning issues in Indiana and across the country.
However, many law enforcement officials, drug prevention advocates and lawmakers in Bartholomew County would like to see those efforts extinguished.
Last week, Indiana State Police Superintendent Paul Whitesell told the State Budget Committee that he’d support legalizing and taxing marijuana. A state police statement later described Whitesell’s comments as his opinion and not an official agency stance.
On Thursday, Washington State became the first in the country to legalize marijuana possession for adult recreational use, after passing the issue in the November election. Colorado voters approved a similar measure, but it won’t go into effect until Jan. 5.
Some Indiana state lawmakers support decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana.
State Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, who represents a portion of Bartholomew County, plans to introduce in next year’s Indiana General Assembly session a bill that would make possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana an infraction instead of a misdemeanor. About 20 marijuana cigarettes can be made from 10 grams of marijuana.
Under current state law, possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana is a Class A misdemeanor, the highest level of misdemeanor. A Class A misdemeanor carries a punishment of up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.
Possession of more than 30 grams is a Class D felony, the lowest level of felony. A Class D felony carries a punishment of six months to three years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
Steele said some state lawmakers have proposed making possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana a Class C misdemeanor, subject to a $500 fine and up to 60 days in jail.
However, he is proposing making possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana a Class C infraction instead of a Class C misdemeanor. A Class C infraction carries the penalty of a fine of up to $500 and no jail time.
The idea of reduced penalties for possessing smaller amounts of marijuana stems from state lawmakers wanting to update Indiana’s criminal code during the 2013 session of the Indiana General Assembly.
Lawmakers want to evaluate whether current sentencing policies appropriately align with the crimes committed and to find the best ways to utilize the state’s limited resources, Steele said.
“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. We have to ask ourselves if this is the best use of our criminal justice resources,” Steele said. “It’s a matter of priorities, and I believe our focus should be on pursuing, prosecuting and incarcerating people who commit violent crimes, not simply people who make poor personal decisions.”
In Bartholomew County, criminal justice system numbers do not show possession of small amounts of marijuana as a growing trend. Since 2007, Class A misdemeanor and Class D felony charges for possession of marijuana have been on the decline, according to data supplied by the Bartholomew County Prosecutor’s Office.
Possession of 30 grams or less, a misdemeanor, has fallen from 198 charges in 2007 to 112 to date this year.
Finding political support for the decriminalization of marijuana will be a challenge.
Gov.-elect Mike Pence opposes decriminalizing marijuana, spokeswoman Christy Denault said.
Pence, a Columbus native, stated his opposition to the the measure during the final gubernatorial debate, and his position remains the same, Denault said.
That could mean a Pence veto of any bill that decriminalizes marijuana, although he wouldn’t tip his hand.
“Gov.-elect Pence will carefully review any bill that comes to his desk before making a decision,” Denault said.
State Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, said that if overcrowded jails are one of the reasons for pushing for reduced punishment for possessing small amounts of marijuana, then increased use of work release programs would be a better solution.
Offenders still would pay their debt to society, Smith said, but get a chance to correct their mistake and improve themselves by taking classes or working.
Fining people for possessing small amounts of marijuana could be construed as taxation of the drug, he said.
Legalizing marijuana so it could be taxed is something he said he strongly dislikes.
“Legalizing something just so you can get more revenue is the wrong idea. You should consider what is best for society,” Smith said.
State Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, said he’s open to the idea of decriminalizing marijuana but needs more information to form a definitive answer. He’s opposed to legalizing the drug, though.
There is merit in the idea that resources directed toward criminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana could be better utilized in drug treatment programs to get people off drugs, Walker said.
But legalizing marijuana would send the wrong message, he said.
“I’m not convinced it’s a safe product,” Walker said.
Law enforcement’s reservations
Decriminalizing marijuana doesn’t sit well with the Columbus Police Department.
“My perspective is we do not support any decriminalization of marijuana,” Columbus Police Chief Jason Maddix said. “It’s a gateway drug, and it opens the door for kids to get involved with other things like cocaine, meth and prescription pills.”
Maddix worries about the message such a change in law would send to children. Decriminalizing marijuana would make it more like consuming alcohol, he said. Society faces problems with drunken driving and underage drinking, and reducing penalties for possessing marijuana could lead to more impaired judgment or underage use, he said. Impaired judgment is a concern because marijuana today is more potent than it was decades ago, he added.
Bartholomew County Prosecutor Bill Nash said marijuana already is decriminalized in that penalties for possession of it are less severe than for other drugs.
Indiana law provides a misdemeanor charge for possession of marijuana if the amount is small enough. However, possession of any amount of cocaine, methamphetamine or heroin or hydrocodone without a prescription is a felony, he said.
Making marijuana as legal as alcohol would present another problem, he said.
Good tests exist to determine if a person is driving while intoxicated by alcohol, Nash said. But marijuana stays in a person’s system longer, so determining if a person is impaired or not while driving gets trickier, he said.
Bartholomew County Sheriff Mark Gorbett said he understands the rationale for reducing punishment as well as the concern for the impairment marijuana causes and possible endangerment of others that causes.
He said he’d need more information from people who want to reduce penalties, or to legalize and to tax marijuana, before weighing in personally on what he supports.
But the fact that marijuana is “embedded in society” and law enforcement is “scratching the surface” of the problem by jailing people for possessing small amounts of marijuana has “got me thinking,” Gorbett said.
Concern for youth
Larry Perkinson, student assistance coordinator for Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp., said he’s concerned about changes that would make marijuana more accessible to youth.
“Our young people use what is affordable, accessible and available. The use becomes more probable when they deem the substance is approved by their peers,” Perkinson said. “If legalization makes any amount available, more of our youths will have access.”
He believes that discussions about decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana gives youths the idea that it is approved for them to use. That’s not the case, he said, because of the mood swings and lack of motivation that result from marijuana use.
“I truly believe students who use (marijuana) are not learning at the same level that they would if they are not using,” Perkinson said.
Foundation For Youth-based Communities That Care, a strategic prevention program in Columbus that focuses on youth substance abuse prevention, opposes legalizing marijuana.
“(Communities That Care) is committed to lowering marijuana use in Bartholomew County,” said Eric Riddle, prevention strategy coordinator.
The group’s goal is for monthly use of marijuana for Bartholomew County students to be 50 percent of the Indiana rate for students in Grades 6 through 12 by 2015.
Columbus Mayor Kristen Brown said she also opposes decriminalizing marijuana because it sends the wrong message, especially to youth.
She noted that 650 sixth-graders graduated from the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program Monday night.
“This is an extremely important program to me as our mayor, the police department and to BCSC, and it delivers a strong ‘no use’ message,” the mayor said.
Marijuana can cause health and emotional problems and poor performance in the classroom and on the job, Brown said. Those problems often are root causes of community problems such as poverty, homelessness, crime, domestic violence and child abuse, she said.
“We can’t send a mixed message,” Brown said. “We need to remain tough on marijuana use.”