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February 26, 2013

STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE: Pot decriminalization bill dead, but reduced-punishment aspect still alive

INDIANAPOLIS — In the flurry of activity at the Statehouse in recent weeks, I missed reporting some sad news for stoners: The legislation to decriminalize marijuana is dead.

State Sen. Karen Tallian’s bill to make possession of two ounces of marijuana into an infraction, like a speeding ticket, died when it didn’t get a hearing in the Committee on Corrections and Criminal Law before a critical deadline passed.

Tallian’s response was anything but mellow. The Democratic grandmother from Ogden Dunes told The Times of Northwest Indiana reporter Dan Carden: “I don’t understand why they refused to even hear it. We have certainly heard some really idiotic bills in that committee.”

Setting aside the question of idiocy in the General Assembly, here’s news that may hearten those who’ve been following the pot debate: Legislation that would roll back Indiana’s marijuana laws — some of the toughest in the nation — is still very much alive.

Tucked inside a 400-plus-page bill to overhaul Indiana’s criminal code is language that would turn most felony-level marijuana crimes into mere misdemeanors. It puts an end to the reefer madness of a past General Assembly that made possession of marijuana a felony if you’d been caught once before or had more than one ounce.

So it would still be a crime to get caught with cannabis, but no longer a crime that could land you in prison or make you automatically lose your driver’s license.

The four co-authors of the criminal code reform bill make for an interesting alliance. The two conservative Republican authors are Hendricks County lawyer Greg Steuerwald and former deputy prosecutor Jud McMillin of Brookville. The two liberal Democratic authors are Bloomington lawyer Matt Pierce and retired Hammond police officer Linda Lawson.

They all had a role to play in crafting a bill that’s been several years in the making and has won strong bipartisan support. The full House is expected to vote on the bill today, then send it to the Senate where the legislation has strong allies.

At a media availability last week to talk about the bill, none of the co-authors said the word “marijuana,” though I think they should have if they wanted to get good media coverage.

As Time magazine reported last week, “pot is having a political moment” as the push to lessen penalties for marijuana has moved from the margins to mainstream.

Tallian’s bill was a pipe dream — no way is this current General Assembly ready to join the 14 states that have decriminalized possession (or the handful of other states that have started down that path.)

But it wasn’t without some hope: Late last year, the Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brent Steele — a rock-ribbed, law-and-order guy if there ever was one — came out in support of Tallian’s proposal. He likened Indiana’s marijuana laws to “smashing an ant with a sledgehammer.”

Steele backed off after he decided the idea wasn’t political palatable to his conservative colleagues — at least not yet.

Remember that committee chairman who wouldn’t give Tallian’s bill a hearing? That’s Republican Sen. Mike Young of Indianapolis. He’s promised Tallian that he’ll research the issue before next year’s session. Maybe that’s a sign that decriminalization isn’t dead, just dormant.

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

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