News From Terre Haute, Indiana

December 17, 2012

EDITORIAL: Don’t let pot smoke obscure bigger issue

The Tribune-Star

---- — The national buzz over decriminalized marijuana is threatening to cast a smoky pall over a vitally important, long-time-coming improvement in Indiana’s criminal sentencing laws that deserves to gain General Assembly approval in 2013.

Don’t confuse the limited legalization of pot in Washington state and Colorado with what is happening in Indiana.

Instead of making possession of even a small quantity of marijuana legal, Indiana is, so far, taking another approach.

Here, an arm of the General Assembly, the Criminal Code Evaluation Committee, will put forth recommendations on marijuana possession violations as part of a comprehensive balancing of penalties — the sentences those convicted of crimes receive. That committee’s work, some of which stretches back at least three years, is designed to better use Indiana’s prison capacity and corrections dollars to punish the most serious offenses, such as rape, child molesting and other violent crimes.

Yes, the Indiana penalty for possession of small quantities of marijuana (10 grams or less, 10 to 30 marijuana cigarettes, we’re told) would be lowered, but reasonably so. Such possession now is a misdemeanor that exacts a $5,000 fine and jail time. A second offense now becomes a felony with a one- to five-year prison sentence. The criminal code committee’s proposal would lower the first offense to the status of an infraction and a $500 fine; a second offense would be a misdemeanor with no more than a year’s jail time. Less penalty, but not legalization.

Lest you see this as soft on crime, consider that conservative Republicans known for law-and-order agendas are at the heart of the movement. One is state Rep. Brent Steele, an influential conservative from Bedford who has been active in building a bipartisan agreement on criminal sentencings.

Steele said it this way to CNHI’s statehouse reporter Maureen Hayden for a story in September: “You can be tough on crime and still use some common sense about how to spend our resources. … We need to lock people up who we’re afraid of, not people we’re mad at. We might be mad at people who are smoking dope, but it’s not doing any good to keep locking them up.”

The state’s criminal code was last updated comprehensively in 1977, and much has changed in the 35 years since. Now, for instance, Indiana has a critical methamphetamine problem that demands great law enforcement, prosecutorial, judicial and prison effort and dollars. Meth, we have to believe, is much worse a problem than marijuana.

It may be that police agencies would need to adjust their marijuana enforcement if the penalties change, so that arrests can better meet the seriousness of offenses. For instance, a 2009 study published in The Bulletin of Cannabis Reform found that in 2007, 88 percent of Indiana’s marijuana arrests were for possession (according to FBI Uniform Crime Reporting statistics), which means just 12 percent were for the arguably worse offense of sales. For the same period, marijuana arrests constituted 57 percent of all drug arrests — that in an area of growing concerns about more serious crimes.

Also among those more serious crimes, according to that 2009 study, are white-collar crimes such as fraud, identity theft and embezzlement. “While a great deal of attention is devoted to law enforcement responses to street crimes,” wrote the study’s author, Jon Gettman, Ph.D., “the economic impact of these crimes is dwarfed by the magnitude of white-collar crime, which is conservatively estimated to have an impact of 10 times the value of street crimes.”

So, bottom line, is that lesser punishment for small quantities of marijuana in Indiana is part of a much larger issue of balancing sentences for more serious crimes. The criminal code committee’s proposals deserve to become law. We hope the real issues don’t get lost in an acrid smokescreen as the issue is debated.