News From Terre Haute, Indiana

State News

September 18, 2012

Steele pushes to decriminalize pot possession

INDIANAPOLIS — 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 1 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 who is running opposed in the November election, 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. Some kid caught with a couple of joints in his pocket,” Steele said. “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 to meet Thursday 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.

Steele is using the report as a framework for legislation he plans to introduce in the next session. He said lawyers at the Legislative Services Agency, the nonpartisan, research arm of the Legislature, have already started crafting the bill.

Andrew Cullen, legislative liaison for the Indiana Public Defender Council and member of the committee that issued the report, thinks Steele will find bipartisan support in the Statehouse. “No one wants to encourage the use of drugs. But to make a low-level, recreational drug user into a felon is ridiculous,” Cullen said. The House is expected to introduce its own version of legislation that would overhaul the state’s criminal code. State Rep. Jud McMillin, a former prosecutor from Brookville, is expected to carry the House version. McMillin said he hasn’t seen Steele’s proposal but said the penalties for some drug crimes need to be revisited.

“We need to be spending our resources on people who need to be put away,” McMillin said.

Steele’s role is seen as critical: He has been ally of Indiana prosecutors, who aren’t expected to support his push to reduce penalties for some drug possession crimes. He’s also been seen as a “rock-ribbed, law-and-order guy,” said Ed Feigenbaum, longtime publisher of the Indiana Legislative Insight newsletter. “For him to make this kind of concession is significant,” Feigenbaum said.

Steele hinted at his position last year when, as chairman of the Senate corrections committee, he cleared the way for a hearing on a bill that created a study on whether Indiana should legalize marijuana. That bill was authored by state Sen. Karen Tallian, a liberal Democrat from Portage.

Tallian, 61, and Steele, 65, don’t agree on much politically. But both are lawyers who’ve seen people sent to jail or prison for possessing small amounts of marijuana and both question whether that’s the right result.

Tallian has done polling on the issue and said there’s a growing public sentiment that Indiana’s marijuana possession laws may be too tough. “We don’t need to be putting kids in jail (for possessing marijuana) and making them into felons,” Tallian said. “I think most people will agree with that.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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