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Lawmakers to look at marijuana penalties

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Along with debates over the state budget, education, healthcare and the economy, the 2013 session of the Indiana General Assembly will likely have marijuana on the agenda. Two senators have said they may introduce legislation regarding marijuana laws and a study commission’s recommendations include changes to the marijuana crime penalties.

Many maintain Indiana leans too conservative for radical changes to marijuana laws. Yet, while the arguments over the drug continue, there is a growing chorus that the Hoosier state needs to address the issue.

lawson Lawson

Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, authored a bill in the 2012 session reducing the penalties for possession and use of small amounts of marijuana. The proposal received a hearing but did not get a vote, and she has indicated she intends to re-introduce the bill this session.

Across the aisle, Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, has been floating the idea of reducing possession of less than 10 grams from a misdemeanor to an infraction.

Democratic Floor Leader Linda Lawson, D-Hammond, believes marijuana-related legislation may get some traction this session. She does not believe Indiana has the appetite to embrace legalization like Colorado and Washington, but she does see a possible willingness to reduce the penalties, especially for small amounts.

“I hope she (Tallian) and Brent Steele will be able to do something about this,” Lawson said.

Compelling argument

Reducing penalties for marijuana is still a novel idea in the Legislature, said Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis. Advocates for revamping the law fall into two categories: those who have a Libertarian bent and those who believe marijuana is akin to alcohol.

Outside of these two groups, the money spent on law enforcement and incarceration, in particular, is becoming the most compelling reason for decriminalization.

A 2010 report from the Council of State Governments Justice Center highlighted Indiana’s alarming trend in sentencing. It found that while the state’s crime rate fell from 2000 to 2008, the prison population grew by 41 percent. Along with that, the appropriations to the Indiana Department of Correction increased by 24 percent to $616 million.

Money is also a common reason cited by advocates outside the General Assembly. Resources are being spent for police officers to arrest and process low-level marijuana offenders, the court system bogs down under the volume of these cases, and the prisons fill with non-violent inmates who each cost $20,000 to $30,000 annually to keep locked up.

Although DeLaney has doubts about lowering the consequences for marijuana, he concedes the financial aspect raises a key question. Namely, is the state spending taxpayer money to put people in prison for, in his words, a relatively minor offense?

Steele cited the amount of state dollars being spent as his main reason for taking a closer look at marijuana laws.

“As a practicing attorney, I’ve seen a significant amount of state dollars spent on prosecuting and incarcerating individuals caught with small amounts of marijuana,” he stated in a press release. “We have to ask ourselves if this is the best use of our criminal justice resources.”

deLaney-ed-mug.jpg DeLaney

Indianapolis-based defense attorney Ross Thomas added that the resource issue is not just about dollars but also about how law enforcement is spending its time. Arresting and processing someone for having a joint takes the police officer off the street and prevents acting on more serious matters like property crimes and violent crimes.

“If I have the choice between having a police officer respond to a domestic violence situation and respond to some young adults smoking pot,” Thomas said, “I want him to deal with the domestic violence case.”

While the savings in the criminal justice system might be easy to measure, the question remains whether the cost would truly be reduced. If smaller amounts of marijuana were decriminalized would the price shift to problems like higher rates of absenteeism at work?

That answer is not known and likely would require a study being done, said Geneva Brown, professor at Valparaiso University Law School. However, she pointed to California as a possible indication that the savings would be absolute. When medicinal use of marijuana became legal, the underground activity moved above ground and the state was able to collect tax revenue.

“I think we spend so much money on incarceration and with the economy the way it is, we’re going to have to be smart about how we’re spending our resources,” Brown said.

Recommendations to consider

The Criminal Code Evaluation Commission Work Group that reviewed Indiana’s criminal law and ultimately offered a proposal for sweeping changes did recommend changes to marijuana penalties but stopped short of decriminalization.

The work group advised reducing all possession of marijuana to a misdemeanor. Currently, possession starts as a Class A misdemeanor but jumps to a Class D felony if the amount involved is 30 grams or more, or if the person has a prior conviction of any marijuana offense.

daniels Daniels

Under the recommendations, possession would not rise above the misdemeanor level. More than 10 pounds would trigger the harshest charge, a Class A misdemeanor. The penalties for dealing marijuana would begin at a Class B misdemeanor and rise to the maximum of a Class C felony for amounts over 10 pounds.

It did not recommend decriminalization or reducing lower levels of possession to an infraction. That is what the work group thought was appropriate, said CCEC work group chair Deborah Daniels. If the amount is large enough to constitute evidence of intent to distribute, then the individual can be so charged.

Formerly a U.S. attorney and U.S. assistant attorney general, Daniels does not support decriminalization of marijuana. She has worked drug cases and seen the corrupting influence as well as violence tied to marijuana. As for recreational use, she believes it not only is a gateway drug but has more significant short- and long-term effects on individuals because its potency has been greatly enhanced.

Thomas and criminal defense attorney Andrew Maternowski, both in solo practice, have represented defendants in marijuana cases across Indiana and they maintain the penalties are too stringent for a drug they see as harmless.

For example, if an individual pleads guilty to a misdemeanor for a small amount of marijuana, that person will have a criminal record which could hinder his or her ability to rent an apartment or get a job. Having marijuana in the car with children can lead to the parents being charged with neglect.

Also, drivers could lose their licenses for 90 days which, in turn, could hamper their ability to go to court-ordered treatment or meet with their probation officer. It could balloon into a larger issue if the individual loses his or her job as a result, then with no paycheck, gets behind on child support payments.

The attorneys are most concerned about how easy it is for someone to get charged with a felony and face jail time.

“We’re calling a significant number of people in our society, who aren’t hurting anybody, felons,” Maternowski said. “We’re doing more harm than good.”•

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  • harmless offenses
    Beyond pot Indiana needs to ammend its sex offender laws. In the first place a person can't commit a sex offense without engaging in sex and looking a a picture certainly is not a sex offense. Possession of child porn is not a sex offense since the possessor did no harm to anyone, if there was any harm done at all!
  • It's already widely used
    If you walk into any gas station in indiana, in any community in the state, there will be rolling papers for sale at the front counter. Usually there will be multiple brands of rolling papers, and sometimes there will be glass pipes. These things are not for rolling cigarettes. It is long past time that the law caught up to people's behaviors. Keeping marijuana illegal, and enforcing it with the fervor we do now merely leaves too much power in the hands of police to search and make crjminals of the youth. When I ride a motorcycle in the summer I will invariably smell the odor of burning marijuana. As often as not, the smoker is driving a nice car, is middle aged or older, and never gets stopped. The people I see on the side of the road having their cars searched are always black or brown, and young.

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  1. The child support award is many times what the custodial parent earns, and exceeds the actual costs of providing for the children's needs. My fiance and I have agreed that if we divorce, that the children will be provided for using a shared checking account like this one(http://www.mediate.com/articles/if_they_can_do_parenting_plans.cfm) to avoid the hidden alimony in Indiana's child support guidelines.

  2. Fiat justitia ruat caelum is a Latin legal phrase, meaning "Let justice be done though the heavens fall." The maxim signifies the belief that justice must be realized regardless of consequences.

  3. Indiana up holds this behavior. the state police know they got it made.

  4. Additional Points: -Civility in the profession: Treating others with respect will not only move others to respect you, it will show a shared respect for the legal system we are all sworn to protect. When attorneys engage in unnecessary personal attacks, they lose the respect and favor of judges, jurors, the person being attacked, and others witnessing or reading the communication. It's not always easy to put anger aside, but if you don't, you will lose respect, credibility, cases, clients & jobs or job opportunities. -Read Rule 22 of the Admission & Discipline Rules. Capture that spirit and apply those principles in your daily work. -Strive to represent clients in a manner that communicates the importance you place on the legal matter you're privileged to handle for them. -There are good lawyers of all ages, but no one is perfect. Older lawyers can learn valuable skills from younger lawyers who tend to be more adept with new technologies that can improve work quality and speed. Older lawyers have already tackled more legal issues and worked through more of the problems encountered when representing clients on various types of legal matters. If there's mutual respect and a willingness to learn from each other, it will help make both attorneys better lawyers. -Erosion of the public trust in lawyers wears down public confidence in the rule of law. Always keep your duty to the profession in mind. -You can learn so much by asking questions & actively listening to instructions and advice from more experienced attorneys, regardless of how many years or decades you've each practiced law. Don't miss out on that chance.

  5. Agreed on 4th Amendment call - that was just bad policing that resulted in dismissal for repeat offender. What kind of parent names their boy "Kriston"?

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