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State senator: Should Indiana legalize marijuana?

January 25, 2011

A state senator is asking a question she hopes will spur debate over sentencing laws and possibly save Indiana millions of dollars: Should the state legalize marijuana?

Sen. Karen Tallian, D- Portage, is sponsoring a bill that would direct the criminal law and sentencing study committee to examine Indiana's marijuana laws next summer and come up with recommendations. Other states have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana or created programs to allow medical marijuana, and Tallian said it's time for conservative Indiana to start the discussion.

"We need to think about this," Tallian said. "We're cutting essential services out of the budget now, and it may not make sense to spend millions of dollars prosecuting marijuana cases."

Democrats are far outnumbered in the Senate, but Senate Corrections Committee Chairman Brent Steele, R-Bedford, said he would give Tallian's proposal a legislative hearing. He said the study committee could help lawmakers determine whether they should explore the issue further — but noted that even in California, a proposal to legalize marijuana for adults over 21 failed.

"Quite frankly, in a more conservative state like Indiana, I can't imagine it passing," Steele said.

Tallian's bill would direct the summer study committee to examine the issue and determine:

— Marijuana's effects on Indiana's criminal justice system.

— Whether possession and use of marijuana should continue to be illegal in Indiana and, if so, what penalties are appropriate.

— Whether Indiana should create a medical marijuana program.

— Whether marijuana should be completely legalized and treated like a controlled substance such as alcohol, with regulated sales and special taxes.

Tallian believes current sentencing is not proportionate to the crime. For possession of less than 30 grams — about an ounce — of marijuana, an offender faces up to a year in jail. Those possessing over an ounce can be sentenced to up to three years.

Tallian says there are about 10,000 to 13,000 marijuana cases each year, and that about 85 percent of those deal with possession. She had no estimates of how much the state pays to prosecute and house nonviolent marijuana offenders, but guessed Indiana could save millions.

"I'm tired of seeing people thrown in jail for what I think is something that's the equivalent of alcohol," Tallian said.

A spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels said the governor's response to Tallian's proposal was that "legislators can study whatever they choose to study. It's their decision."

More than a dozen states have decriminalized possessing small amounts marijuana by eliminating prison time or reducing penalties to a civil fine, similar to a traffic violation, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. The group says 15 states and Washington, D.C., have medical marijuana programs.

Tallian said the public's attitude toward marijuana is changing, but she acknowledged it can take years for controversial proposals to gain traction in the Legislature. She said her bill creating the study would simply explore the issue. Any legislation to change marijuana laws would have to wait until next year — at the earliest.

"It's just a study committee," she said.

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