GOP senator plans bill decriminalizing pot possession

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An influential Republican senator is ready to take the crime out of carrying small amounts of marijuana.

State Sen. Brent Steele said he’ll introduce legislation in the 2013 session that would make possession of 10 grams or less an infraction, rather than a criminal misdemeanor.

“I don’t think mere possession alone is worth involving the entire judicial system and all that’s involved with it,” Steele said.

Steele’s support for decriminalization could be a turning point for Indiana, which only began to hear about the issue in 2011. Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, pushed for a summer study group in 2011 and this year introduced a bill that would have decriminalized possession of a larger amount, 3 ounces.

The 10 grams that Steele is targeting is the equivalent of a little more than one-third of an ounce, roughly enough to make 20 to 30 marijuana cigarettes.

Many other states and college campuses already treat possession of small amounts of pot as an infraction, which means the offender is ticketed, not arrested,

“Society didn’t melt down, and we didn’t turn into a drug-crazed culture as a result of it,” Steele said.

Currently, possessing 30 grams or less of marijuana is a Class A misdemeanor on the first offense. Possession of more than 30 grams is a Class D felony, which is the lowest level of felony.

Steele, chairman of the Senate committee on corrections, criminal and civil matters, said he’ll include the marijuana provision in a bill that revamps the Indiana criminal code.

The Criminal Code Evaluation Commission, which is in its fourth summer of work, is looking to align charges and sentencing in proportion to the offenses.   

Steele said key provisions of his bill would increase the number of felony classes from four to six and create a threshold of $750 for felony theft.

Right now, “stealing a toothpick is the same as stealing a Cadillac,” Steele said.

In addition to driving up costs in the judicial system, Steele said, a lack of “proportionality” in the criminal code is unfair to young offenders. Steele said he knows a man who stole gas out of a farmer’s tank when he was 19 and ended up with a felony on his record.

“It wasn’t worth a felony,” Steele said. “His family had a lesser standard of living for years as a result of the stupid decision he made when he was 19.”

The long-term consequences of harsh sentencing laws are starting to gain attention in the business community, especially as cities like Indianapolis deal with the employment challenges of ex-offenders.

Democratic City-County Councilor Vop Osili is trying to establish a bi-partisan study commission on ex-offender re-entry, and the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce is surveying its members on how they treat criminal records in the hiring process.

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