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September 27, 2012

Our View: Time to ease marijuana penalty?

Possession of about 20 marijuana cigarettes would be the equivalent of a traffic ticket if a measure proposed by a conservative state senator becomes law.

Sen. Brent Steele, a Republican from Bedford, will sponsor legislation in the next session to rewrite the state’s criminal code.

Among the provisions, he says, will be one that makes possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana an infraction rather than a crime. If the provision passes, Indiana will join 14 states that have already rolled back their criminal penalties for marijuana possession. For many of those states, the issue is not so much about policy as economics.

When the Connecticut legislature voted this year to decriminalize marijuana possession, supporters said the move would save about $11 million in law enforcement costs. Lawmakers there and elsewhere are asking themselves whether they want to keep spending tax dollars on jailing marijuana users or on maintaining streets and sewers.

Steele doesn’t favor making marijuana possession legal. He simply thinks the state’s marijuana possession laws are too harsh. Indiana law dictates that marijuana possession is a felony unless it’s a first-time offense and the amount is less than an ounce.

The question, Steele says, is whether locking someone up for possession of a few marijuana cigarettes is a good use of tax dollars.

Steele thinks it’s not. He compares it to “smashing an ant with a sledgehammer.”

Steele isn’t talking about promoting marijuana use. He doesn’t want to do away with laws that carry tough penalties for people who drive under the influence of marijuana.

“We’re talking about simple possession, some kid caught with a couple of joints in his pocket,” he said. “Mere possession has nothing to do with use or abuse.”

Andrew Cullen, legislative liaison for the Indiana Public Defender Council, put it another way.

“No one wants to encourage the use of drugs,” he said, “but to make a low-level, recreational drug user into a felon is ridiculous.”

Frankly, such a change in the law might be inevitable. Public opinion on the issue has shifted dramatically in recent decades.

When Gallup first asked about legalizing marijuana in 1969, more than 80 percent of Americans were against it. By last year, that opposition had dropped to 46 percent.

This might be a change in the law whose time has come.

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