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EDITORIAL

Is tipping point here for approval of marijuana?

Thursday, November 29, 2012 - 12:01 am

Probably not, but the signs are that it is getting closer.

Indiana State Police Superintendent Paul Whitesell made national news and probably surprised more than a few state legislators when he said of marijuana that if it were up to him, “I do believe I would legalize it and tax it.”

State Police were quick to walk back Whitesell’s statements – the superintendent, you see, was stating a “philosophical opinion,” not an official one – but not before an important point had been made. “My thoughts are, toward the zenith of my career,” he said, “that it’s here, it’s going to stay.” He cited voter-passed measures in Colorado and Washington that allow adults to have small amounts of marijuana as evidence of a national shift on the issue.

The law need not follow public opinion – indeed, in most cases, it should not – but there is great risk when the law gets too far ahead of public opinion. If the vast majority of drivers routinely drive 60 miles an hour along a certain stretch of road, it would be counterproductive to set the speed limit at 30.

Prohibition should have taught us that, if nothing else. Criminalizing an activity that a majority of people enjoy and many won’t give up did nothing but create a whole new thug underground of liquor-providing criminals and, ultimately, breed contempt for the law in general.

The difference is that now we’re talking about people accepting something that hasn’t been favored, rather than giving up something they’ve been used to. The question is whether some kind of tipping point has been reached that would justify a movement toward legalization. And the answer, despite Whitesell’s belief in a national shift, is, “Probably not.”

But there is evidence we’re getting there. Voters in two states are OK with using pot for fun, and 18 states have legalized the use of “medical” marijuana. And Whitesell is but one of a growing number of politicians s and public safety officials to exhibit a relaxed attitude.

Don’t expect conservative Indiana to lead the pack on this issue. The General Assembly is not likely to approve the measure to be introduced by two legislators – one Republican and one Democrat – to soften the penalties for possessions of small amounts of marijuana. Possession of even a tiny amount – less than 30 grams – is a Class A misdemeanor that can earn a one-year sentence, and that is not likely to change.

But there is a chance the proposal will get serious discussion. That alone would be something of a tipping point here.