News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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June 24, 2013

STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE: To legalize pot or not? That is the question

INDIANAPOLIS — I grew up in a city of potheads.

That’s a wild exaggeration, but I did grow up in a city that was one of the first in the nation to decriminalize marijuana.

In 1972, when I was high school freshman in Ann Arbor, Mich., the city council passed an ordinance making possession of small amounts of marijuana a civil infraction, subject to a $5 fine. The penalty has since been raised to $25.

The vote made national headlines, but as I recall, it seemed almost anti-climactic. The vote — challenged in court but later reaffirmed by a voter referendum — wasn’t nearly as exciting as having John Lennon and Yoko Ono come to town.

They came in 1971, just as the pro-weed, anti-war movement was starting to take hold in Ann Arbor. They took part in the John Sinclair Freedom Rally, named for the hippie poet and activist who’d been sentenced to 10 years in a Michigan prison for giving two joints to an undercover police officer.

No way was my mother going to let me or any of my siblings go to the rally. But I can still remember some lyrics to the song Lennon wrote for it. (“It ain’t fair, John Sinclair/ In the stir for breathing air …”) And thanks to 21st century technology, my grown children can see a clip of Lennon performing his song “John Sinclair” on the video-sharing website, YouTube. Why this blast from the past? Because I’ve written more marijuana stories in the last few months than I have in the last few decades.

There was some serious debate on marijuana in the Indiana Statehouse last session. Some observers scoffed at a failed pot-decriminalization proposal floated by liberal Democrat senator Karen Tallian of Portage and a Libertarian-like Republican senator, Brent Steele of Bedford.

But Republican authors of the sweeping criminal code reform bill that passed were ready to pull down the penalties for marijuana crimes until Republican Gov. Mike Pence stepped in with a veto threat.

Tallian is ready to revive her proposal in the next session. In doing so, she’ll likely cite a recent American Civil Liberties Union report documenting racial disparity in marijuana possession arrests. Using the FBI Uniform Crime Reports from 50 states, the ACLU found black Americans were nearly four times as likely be to arrested on pot possession charges as white Americans — even though marijuana use is about the same for both groups. (Editor’s note: A story on this report appeared on Page A1 of Friday’s Tribune-Star.)

The report found no decline in pot-smoking over the last 40 years of the drug war, and it estimates that local communities, combined, are spending more than $3 billion a year to enforce pot laws. It also urges states such as Indiana to license and regulate marijuana, legalizing it for people 21 or older.

Elkhart County Prosecutor Curtis Hill, who is black and lives in the Indiana county with the highest racial disparity reported in the ACLU report, thinks that’s a terrible idea. He’s been prosecuting drug and other crimes for almost 25 years and worries that legalization will drive up marijuana use, especially by teenagers. “We don’t need more people walking around dazed, in some foggy haze,” Hill said. “We’re better than that.”

Research on Hill’s concern is mixed. Some studies show increased marijuana use after decriminalization; others contradict those findings.

I don’t smoke pot, and I wasn’t a teenage pothead. But I have schoolmates who were, so I found this interesting: Earlier this year, when the Michigan legislature was debating a bill to decriminalize marijuana throughout the state, Ann Arbor’s mayor told a local radio station that the city had a lot more problems with alcohol abusers than with marijuana users.

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

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