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September 23, 2012

Public sentiment and fiscal issues shift the pot debate in Indiana

INDIANAPOLIS — Chad Padgett is a retired juvenile corrections officer from Logansport who found himself in an unexpected place last summer: Testifying in front of the Indiana Legislature’s sentencing policy study committee holding a hearing on the merits of relaxing the state’s marijuana laws.

Padgett, representing a national organization of former and current law enforcement officers, said locking people up for possessing pot was a waste of public resources that could be better spent targeting what he called a “true threat to society.”

No legislation came out of that committee, but Padgett and others are convinced it cleared the way for a more serious discussion sure to take place in the next General Assembly. That is, whether Indiana should join a growing number of states decriminalizing marijuana possession — treating it like a speeding ticket that results in a fine instead the threat of jail or prison time.

“The conversation (in the Statehouse) is shifting dramatically,” said Padgett. “It used to be that you couldn’t even say the word ‘marijuana’ out loud.”

Now there’s some serious noise.

Last week, state Sen. Brent Steele, an influential Republican lawmaker who will author legislation that rewrites Indiana’s criminal code, said he’ll include a provision that makes possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana an infraction rather than a crime. Ten grams is equivalent to about one-third of an ounce, roughly enough to make 20 to 30 marijuana cigarettes.

The Bedford legislator said Indiana would be following 14 other states in the nation that have already rolled back their criminal penalties for pot possession. “I don’t think those states are filled with drug-crazed people as a result,” Steele said.  

But he does think those states are saving millions of dollars in money that would have been spent in prosecution, probation, and jail and prison costs. “Money,” he said, “that we could spend on something else.”

Steele’s support is critical: Seen as a rock-ribbed, law-and-order guy, he’s not the most likely legislator to advocate for an issue once relegated to the political fringe. He’s been a steady ally of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, which opposes decriminalizing marijuana possession.

“It’s a sign of how things are really changing,” said Tom Angell, spokesman for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, or LEAP, the organization that Padgett represented at last summer’s hearing on the state’s marijuana laws.

“The debate about marijuana used to be ‘the cops versus the hippies,’” said Angell. “We thought there was need to help people understand this was an issue that affects everybody, whether you’re a drug user or not.”

When the Connecticut legislature voted to decriminalize marijuana possession earlier this year, supporters of the bill said it would save the state about $11 million in law enforcement costs.

“Budgetary issues are driving these conversations in a lot of state legislatures,” Angell said. “And a lot of local governments are asking the same thing: Are we going to keep using our dollars arresting people for pot or we going to use those dollars to fill in our potholes.”

The fiscal impact of Steele’s proposal is yet unknown, but the dollars that could be saved by reducing the penalty for pot possession will be part of the fiscal impact statement produced by the Legislative Services Agency, the Legislature’s nonpartisan research arm.

Steele’s proposal is likely to meet some tough opposition from opponents who will argue that marijuana is a gateway drug and that decriminalizing it sends the wrong message to young people.

But what may help the money argument is the shift in public sentiment about pot. Last October, a Gallup poll showed a record high number of Americans favored legalizing marijuana.

Gallup’s history with that question illustrates the shift: When Gallup first asked about legalizing marijuana in 1969, more than 80 percent of Americans were against it. In 2006, opposition dropped to 60 percent. By 2011, opposition dropped to 46 percent. That 2011 found that 54 percent of Midwesterners favored legalizing marijuana.

That’s not what Steele wants to do with his legislation, but it does indicate to him that the public will support lawmakers having a good debate on the issue.

“You can be tough on crime and still use some common sense about how to spend our resources,” Steele said. “I’ve said this before and I’m going to keep saying this: We need to lock people up who we’re afraid of, not people we’re mad at. We might be mad at people who are smoking dope, but it’s not doing any good to keep locking them up.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

 

 

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