Indiana lawmaker to introduce pot decriminalization bill

Published: Sep. 24, 2012 at 1:36 PM CDT|Updated: Oct. 1, 2012 at 1:49 PM CDT
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An influential Indiana lawmaker intends to sponsor a bill next session that would reduce penalties for people found in possession of small amounts of marijuana.

State Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, said his legislation would make possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana an infraction rather than a criminal misdemeanor. Ten grams is equivalent to about one-third of an ounce, roughly enough to make 20 to 30 marijuana cigarettes.

Steele, who chairs the Senate committee on corrections, criminal and civil matters, noted that many other states and college campuses already ticket offenders for possessing small amounts of pot instead of arresting them.

"Society didn't melt down, and we didn't turn into a drug-crazed culture as a result of it," he told the Indianapolis Business Journal for a Thursday story.

His support for decriminalization could be a turning point for Indiana, which only began considering 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, three ounces.

Tallian's bill received a hearing in the Senate but was not brought to a vote.

She issued a statement Friday saying it's about time Indiana that decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

"I decided this was important when I sat in a courtroom watching the number of small possession cases that took up the court's time and resources. Since then, I have heard from people who see this as a good idea for a number of different reasons," she 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 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.

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. He 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.

"His family had a lesser standard of living for years as a result of the stupid decision he made when he was 19," Steele said.

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.

Indianapolis Democratic City-County Councilor Vop Osili is trying to establish a bipartisan 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.

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)