Opinion and Forefront

TALLIAN: Indiana's laws are draconian and counterproductive

April 19, 2014

DEBATE QBills introduced in the Indiana Senate three years in a row would have decriminalized possession and distribution of marijuana. Should lawmakers pass a similar bill in a future General Assembly?

 

Tallian
AThe young woman called my law office, tearfully pouring out her story. As an 18-year-old at a graduation party, she had been arrested and charged with possession of a small amount of marijuana. She was booked and made bond, pleaded guilty, went through substance abuse evaluation, did community service, paid a fine, and went through probation for a year.

Then she went to college, obtaining her teaching degree without further mishap. She was assigned to a local school for student teaching. Then, confronted by the superintendent waving her “criminal history” before her, he declared that she would never teach in his school and that she should look for a new career.

This story, like countless others, is the reason I have been adamant on reforming the marijuana laws in Indiana. As an attorney, I have witnessed it many times: jeopardized futures, branded with a criminal record that may follow them for years. Even during Prohibition—which we all know did not work—it was never illegal to possess alcohol, only to sell it.

Many states have seen the benefits of adjusting their policies on marijuana. Colorado and Washington have legalized marijuana for recreational use, and have seen millions in additional tax revenue generated as a result. Twenty states, including neighboring Illinois, have passed laws allowing marijuana to be used to treat a variety of medical conditions like cancer and glaucoma.

Additionally, 15 states and the District of Columbia have decided to be pragmatic and decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana to cut down on the monetary and social costs of enforcing, prosecuting and sentencing low-level marijuana offenders.


Here in Indiana, I have tried for years to have our marijuana policies studied, and ultimately adjusted, to take a smarter approach to those who commit minor offenses. My proposals received only one committee hearing. Even then, no vote was taken to move the proposal forward.

This issue is about taking a small and much-needed step forward because our policies are clearly stuck in the past. In Indiana, possession of a small amount of marijuana is punishable by up to one year of incarceration and up to a $5,000 fine, and the penalties only go up from there.

There is also a real racial disparity, as African-Americans are 3.4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession despite nearly equal usage rates between African-Americans and Caucasians.

Eighty-eight percent of marijuana arrests are for simple possession. Yet, marijuana arrests account for 57 percent of all drug arrests in a state where meth and heroin use have reached epidemic levels.

The fact is, every year Indiana spends millions of tax dollars sentencing citizens for what other states have deemed permissible. As a state, we are saying it is acceptable to lock up minorities and young people at alarming rates for something that is legal for them to do on vacation in Denver.

Do these policies seem fiscally prudent for a state that has some of the harshest penalties for first-time marijuana offenders? I think not. I will continue to propose legislation to address the real drug problem in Indiana and refocus our resources where they can do the most good.•

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Tallian, a Democrat from Portage, represents state Senate District 4 in northern Indiana. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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