SOUTH BEND — The Indiana State Police superintendent’s opinion that marijuana should be legalized and taxed isn’t finding much support among local law enforcement officials.
Superintendent Paul Whitesell responded to a question on the issue this week during a State Budget Committee meeting, saying that the drug is here to stay and pointing to voter-passed measures in Colorado and Washington that allow adults to have small amounts of marijuana.
Some Indiana lawmakers plan to push during next year’s legislative session for making possession of small amounts of marijuana an infraction carrying a fine rather than a criminal misdemeanor, arguing that too much money is spent on prosecuting and jailing people in such cases.
St. Joseph County Prosecutor Michael Dvorak said state law allows for first-time violators of marijuana possession laws to plead guilty and avoid jail time through community service, fines or drug education classes.
“For the advocates of legalizing marijuana to say that people are going to prison for small quantities, that’s not true,” Dvorak told the South Bend Tribune.
Vigo County Drug Task Force Detective Denzil Lewis said he believed decriminalization of marijuana wouldn’t lead to less crime.
“To legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana does nothing but benefit the larger scale drug dealers,” Lewis told WTHI-TV of Terre Haute. “... More people are going to want to get involved into the distribution of marijuana because now it’s more lucrative.”
A state police spokesman issued a statement Tuesday saying that Whitesell, an appointee of Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, had given “a philosophical opinion,” not an official one.
Republican Gov.-elect Mike Pence, who takes office in early January, hasn’t yet announced his pick to lead the state police.
“Gov.-elect Pence opposes the decriminalization of marijuana, and he will base his decisions about the leadership of his administration on a broad range of qualifications rather than a stance on one issue,” Pence spokeswoman Christy Denault said.
Whitesell’s comments add credibility to arguments that the state’s marijuana laws need to be changed, said Robin Alexander, a board member for the Indiana chapter of NORML, a group that advocates legalization of the drug.
“He’s right, he’s absolutely right, and he’s been on the force long enough to know what’s real,” Alexander told WRTV of Indianapolis. “The penalties are much too severe, and they have been for a very long time.”
Current state law makes possessing 30 grams or less of marijuana a Class A misdemeanor on the first offense and carries a jail sentence of up to one year. Possession of more than 30 grams — roughly an ounce — is a Class D felony that carries a potential sentence of one to three years in prison.
Rep. Sheila Klinker, D-Lafayette, said she was surprised by Whitesell’s response to her question. Klinker told WLFI-TV that while many legislators will oppose decriminalization, she believes it merits consideration.
“When the head of the state police tells you he thinks it should happen, I think I have to listen and certainly be open to discussion,” Klinker said.