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Editorials

Let the smoke clear

Whitesell

If it were up to me, I do believe I would legalize (marijuana) and tax it.”

– Indiana State Police Superintendent Paul Whitesell

“(Whitesell) does not support the legalization of

marijuana.”

– State Police spokesman David Bursten

The Indiana State Police chief’s public support of legalizing marijuana – followed soon after by his spokesman’s denunciation of that support – reflects government’s conflicting views on pot and offers evidence of the difficulty Indiana legislators will have if they attempt to wade into the quagmire and legalize marijuana.

But lawmakers should seriously consider relaxing penalties so that offenders with small amounts are not jailed, imprisoned or stuck with a criminal record.

Marijuana is illegal under federal law. But voters in Colorado and Washington voted to legalize small amounts in their states, some municipalities are moving in that direction and small amounts of marijuana have become de facto legal in the 18 states that permit it for medical purposes.

The official government position is that marijuana is a dangerous drug. Yet it is not toxic, while alcohol – legal in all states – is toxic and appears to have potential to cause far more long-term health problems.

To the public, government essentially throws marijuana in with crack cocaine and meth, which are far more dangerous.

Bipartisan support seems to be building toward legalization in Indiana, but even if a majority of legislators would support that – which seems doubtful, at least in 2013 – a host of questions will arise. Who will regulate it? Who will sell it? If only small amounts are legal, how would it be supplied? Would legalization only serve to support the large criminal enterprises – including increasingly dangerous Mexican drug cartels – that supply the product? What would be the implications on driving motor vehicles while high? How would it be taxed?

With so many questions, the legalization issue may well be one where Indiana should not be in the lead. Lawmakers will very likely serve constituents best if they wait to see how the law and its effects on society evolve in Colorado and Washington before taking such a step.

But in the meantime lawmakers should re-evaluate how state law treats possession, particularly of small amounts. Marijuana is classified as a Schedule I hallucinogen, subject to the most government restrictions. Possession of less than 30 grams (slightly more than an ounce) is now a class A misdemeanor, which carries a penalty of up to a year in prison. Possession of more than 30 grams is a Class D felony, which carries a penalty of six months to three years in prison. State law does rightly allow a judge to defer prosecution on a first offense of less than 30 grams and dismiss charges if the offender complies with all the requirements of a deferred prosecution.

Handing such offenders jail time is a waste of taxpayer resources and too often hangs a criminal record on an otherwise law-abiding citizen.

Regarding legalization, if the head of the state police – someone Gov. Mitch Daniels regards as one of his best appointees – is conflicted, it seems doubtful lawmakers would be able to resolve the conflicting interests of Hoosiers until something resembling a consensus or best practice emerges.

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