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Indiana takes another look at loosening marijuana laws

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press
Friday, November 9, 2012 - 2:56 pm

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana is a long way from considering legalizing recreational marijuana as Colorado and Washington did this week, but key lawmakers from both parties plan to introduce measures next year that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of the drug.

Democratic state Sen. Karen Tallian of Portage said Friday that she will again introduce a bill that would decriminalize possession of up to three ounces — about 85 grams — of marijuana. The bill received a Senate hearing this year but was not brought up for a vote. Tallian, however, said attitudes are changing even among her fellow lawmakers.

"Two or three years ago when I started talking about that it was, 'You're crazy,'" she said. "Now, it's like: 'I'm all right with that.' I've gotten that from a lot of people. 'I wouldn't put my name on it but I'll support you.'"

Separately, Republican Sen. Brent Steele of Bedford has said he intends to introduce legislation in 2013 that would make possession of 10 grams or less — less than one-third of an ounce — of marijuana an infraction rather than a criminal misdemeanor.

Steele, who chairs 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 to align charges and sentencing in proportion to the offenses. He was out of the country Friday and could not be reached for comment, but has said the state should focus its strained resources on violent crime rather than pot smokers.

Possessing 30 grams or less of marijuana is a Class A misdemeanor on the first offense in Indiana, and carries a sentence of up to one year. Possession of more than 30 grams — roughly an ounce — is a Class D felony that carries a sentence of one to three years in prison.

Supporters of decriminalization say prosecuting pot users the current way only crowds state prisons and damages young offenders' futures with a criminal record.

"It's about saving the state money and it's about helping kids," Tallian said.

Beth Baker, executive director of the Healthy Communities Initiative, said she came around to the idea of relaxing marijuana laws while working on preventing substance abuse by young people.

"From my own experience working in the prevention field, we can do a lot better job of prevention with marijuana if we had it legalized," Baker said. That way, she said, pot could be regulated and taxed like tobacco and alcohol.

Calvina Fay of the Drug Free America Foundation said pot isn't as safe as supporters claim, and said loosening marijuana laws sends a bad message to kids.

"Having more drugs and more people using drugs, and drugs more accessible, in our opinion is not a good thing," Fay said.

Supporters and opponents alike are waiting to see how the federal government reacts to passage of the legalization ballot measures in Colorado and Washington. Federal law still outlaws use of the drug in all circumstances.

"I think now we're in a holding pattern," Fay said. "We're waiting to see what will the feds do."