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November 5, 2012

State of the Statehouse: Less penalty for pot finds support

How far idea will get in legislature still debatable

INDIANAPOLIS — The much anticipated Howey/DePauw Indiana Battleground Poll released last week was worth the wait, with its newsworthy revelation that the U.S. Senate race wasn’t shaping up the way it was anticipated.

The independent, nonpartisan poll — conducted by two of the best in the profession: Democrat Fred Yang and Republican Christine Matthews — showed Democrat Joe Donnelly surging ahead of his Republican opponent, Richard Mourdock.

In a “red” state like Indiana and in a race that’s attracted millions of dollars from outside groups (making it the most expensive Senate race in Indiana history), that’s big news.

But so too is something else that the pollsters found: significant support for decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana.

The Howey/DePauw pollsters asked the question because it’s an issue state legislators are likely to face in the next session.

Earlier this year, Republican state Sen. Brent Steele, the rock-ribbed law-and-order chairman of the Senate’s Corrections, Criminal & Civil Matters Committee, came out in support of the idea.

Steele is one of the most conservative and influential lawmakers in Indiana. He’s also the likely author of a Senate bill that will overhaul Indiana’s criminal code to make penalties for drug crimes more proportional.

In an interview I had with Steele in September, he said he plans to include language in that bill that would make it an infraction, rather than a crime, to possess a small amount (10 grams or less) of marijuana.

Steele believes the state’s marijuana possession laws, which dictate that marijuana possession is a felony unless it’s a first-time offense and the amount is less than 1 ounce, are both too harsh for the offender and too costly for the criminal justice system. He likened the current marijuana possession law to “smashing an ant with a sledgehammer.”

That’s the kind of language long used by pot-smoking liberals and libertarians, not stalwart Republicans like Steele. But as Brian Howey pointed out in his Howey Politics Indiana column that broke the pot-polling-question news, the marijuana conversation is shifting.

Steele is echoing the concerns of other conservatives who’ve questioned the fairness, effectiveness and cost of harsh marijuana laws. Among them: former Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Christian Broadcasting Station televangelist Pat Robertson.

After I wrote the story about Steele’s proposal, I was told by some other Republican state lawmakers that there was no way they’d vote to lessen the penalties for pot possession. They don’t want it to come back and bite them in the next election when they’d surely be accused by opponents as being “soft on crime.”

It’s an accusation that will surely be flung, but the Howey/DePauw poll results suggest it may not stick.

By a 54 percent to 37 percent margin, poll respondents supported decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana. The breakdown showed 37 percent who strongly favor and 17 percent who favor, compared to 27 percent who strongly oppose and 10 percent who oppose. Another 10 percent said they didn’t know.

Here’s the question that Steele posed to me, back in September, when he first publicly floated the idea: “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?”

Maureen Hayden is the Indiana Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI, the parent company of the Tribune-Star. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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