Hendricks County Flyer, Avon, IN

Westside

September 25, 2012

Lawmaker pushes to decriminalize marijuana

An influential Republican lawmaker believes it’s time for Indiana to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana and plans to include language to do so in legislation to overhaul the state’s criminal code.

State Sen. Brent Steele, who’s played a critical role in criminal justice issues as chair of the Senate corrections committee, said the state’s marijuana possession laws are too harsh. Indiana law dictates that marijuana possession is a felony unless it’s a first-time offense and the amount is less than one ounce

“We have to ask ourselves as a society, do we really want to be locking people up for having a couple of joints in their pocket?” Steele said. “Is that how we want to be spending our criminal justice resources?”

At least 14 states have rolled back criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana, and 17 states and the District of Columbia allow the use of “medical marijuana” as pain treatment.

Steele, a conservative legislator from Bedford, likened Indiana’s marijuana possession laws to “smashing an ant with a sledgehammer.”

His proposal: To make possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana a civil infraction that carries the penalty of a fine.

Ten grams is equal to about 10 single-serving sugar packets or two joints.

Steele doesn’t support legalizing marijuana. He doesn’t want to do away with laws, for example, that carry tough penalties for people who drive under the influence of marijuana. And he’s convinced there are other laws that will catch people who are drug abusers.

“We’re talking about simple possession,” he said. “Some kid caught with a couple of joints in his pocket. Mere possession has nothing to do with use or abuse.”

Steele’s support for such a change is critical, as is the timing. A legislative study committee scheduled is working on a massive plan to overhaul Indiana’s criminal code. Those committee members are reviewing a 375-page report — crafted at the direction of the legislature by a group of prosecutors, public defenders, and other attorneys — that calls for revamping the state’s criminal laws to make punishment more proportionate to the crime. It calls for tougher penalties for the worst sex and violent crimes, and less prison time for low-level drug crimes.

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