Howey: Don’t hold your breath for Indiana pot law change

Posted on Jan. 3, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.

NASHVILLE, Ind. — The legal sale of recreational marijuana began Wednesday in Colorado and will be followed later this year by the state of Washington, but Hoosiers shouldn’t hold their breath about that happening any time soon in Indiana.

Even though recent polling shows rapidly evolving views from a majority of Hoosiers, the political establishment in Indiana appears to be firmly moored to the Drug War era that has seen more than 160,000 residents charged with various criminal and misdemeanor violations over the past decade.

In the past, voluminous public support on issues such as a state lottery and gaming occurred well before the Indiana General Assembly allowed a referendum on the lottery in 1988 (which passed with a landslide 62 percent), and the passage of riverboat casino laws in 1993. It took the defeat of Republican House Speaker J. Roberts Daily in 1986 to pave the way for the 1988 referendum. Daily had been a vociferous opponent of any gaming expansion.

During a 2012 gubernatorial debate in Zionsville, Gov. Mike Pence said he opposed any marijuana law reforms and viewed marijuana as a “gateway” drug. But public opinion in Indiana is shifting. In the October 2012 Howey/DePauw Indiana Battleground Poll, for the first time in decades the marijuana question — in this case decriminalization — was tested. The question was, “Currently it is a misdemeanor crime in Indiana to possess a small amount of marijuana. The legislature may consider making it an infraction rather than a crime to possess a small amount of marijuana. Do you favor or oppose making possession of a small amount of marijuana an infraction rather than a crime?”

The response was 54 percent favored decriminalization and 38 percent opposed. When the April 2013 Howey Politics Indiana Poll asked the same question, 56 percent favored and 37 percent opposed.

An October 2013 Gallup poll showed 58 percent of Americans believe that marijuana should be legal, an all-time high (pun inadvertent, but intended).

But even so, Indiana criminal code reforms in 2013 that originally would have downgraded low-level marijuana possession were amended to actually increase possession from a misdemeanor to a felony.

Possessing 30 grams of marijuana or less is a misdemeanor in Indiana, but fines can be as high as $5,000 with incarceration up to a year. In Kentucky, it is a misdemeanor to possess up to 8 ounces of marijuana.

House Bill 1006, which rewrites Indiana’s criminal code to lower drug penalties and toughen punishment for violent and sex offenders, contained language that made most of the state’s marijuana crimes into misdemeanors. Bill supporters said the intent of the bill is divert drug users from state prisons and into treatment programs, while reserving the prisons for the worst offenders.

Pence waited till mid-March to weigh in saying, “I think we need to focus on reducing crime, not reducing penalties.”

In 2011, a bill sponsored by State Sen. Karen Talian, D-Ogden Dunes, created a summer study committee on the issue. “Just look the polling on this issue,” Talian said last year. “The public is in favor of this. The governor is the only one who’s been talking about tougher penalties for drug crimes. Across the country, the train is moving in the opposite direction.”

Some Indiana police chiefs and prosecutors have been willing to have the discussion on marijuana issues. The most notable was Indiana State Police Superintendent Paul Whitesell, who told members of the State Budget Committee in December 2012, “If it were up to me I do believe I would legalize it 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.”

Michigan passed a medical marijuana law in 2008 via referendum with 63 percent support. In 2013, the Illinois legislature passed a medical marijuana law. In August, Chicago started writing civil tickets for marijuana offenders possessing under 15 grams — an effort to reduce jail overcrowding and allowing police to concentrate on violent crime. Chicago ticketed nearly 400 offenders by December, while its homicide rate dropped 18 percent, according to the Chicago Tribune.

In Ohio, petitions have been submitted and approved by the state ballot committee to legalize medical cannabis.

With Republicans holding super majorities in the Indiana House and Senate, as well as most statewide offices, advocacy for marijuana law change will need to come from Republicans who can deliver a new message: The times they are a-changin’.

Maureen Hayden of CNHI contributed to this column. Howey, a former Elkhart Truth reporter, publishes at www.howeypolitics.com.

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