Pubdate: Thu, 28 Jul 2011
Source: Journal and Courier (IN)
Copyright: 2011 Federated Publications, Inc
Author: Sophia Voravong, The Associated Press contributed


When a first-time offender is caught in West Lafayette with a small
amount of marijuana, he is given a citation and a court date. Though
technically arrested, rarely is the person booked into the Tippecanoe
County Jail, police Chief Jason Dombkowski said.

Last year, in Tippecanoe County courts, marijuana accounted for only 4
percent of higher-felony drug cases -- 8 out of 156, Prosecutor Pat
Harrington noted.

"There's this urban street myth that people in the Department of
Correction, the only thing they've done is smoked a joint," Harrington
said. "It's more fiction than reality.

"I don't know of any prosecutor who seeks prison for low-level
possession of marijuana."

Nonetheless, state lawmakers are studying whether to legalize
marijuana in Indiana or reduce criminal penalties on small amounts of
the drug.

Members of Indiana's Criminal Law and Sentencing Policy Study
Committee heard from a number of interested parties Thursday.

Those who addressed the panel shared a common message: Marijuana
prohibition in the United States has failed, and Indiana and its
residents would benefit from changing the law.

"The public recognizes that our marijuana laws have done more harm
than good," Daniel Abrahamson of the Drug Policy Alliance told the

Lawmakers have approved medical use of mari-juana in 16 states and the
District of Columbia. They have eliminated penalties on small amounts
of marijuana in 13 other states.

Abrahamson said those changes have not met with negative consequences
such as an uptick in marijuana use. He said there is nothing standing
in the way of Indiana changing its law as other states have.

Noah Member of the Marijuana Policy Project said marijuana use is
widespread despite being illegal and that laws against possession ruin
people's lives by sending them to prison for using a substance he said
is safer than alcohol.

Member suggested mari-juana should be regulated by the state much like
alcohol. He said states that have legalized medical marijuana have
seen no increase in teen use of the drug.

Abrahamson estimated Indiana could raise $44 million a year in sales
taxes alone if it regulated and taxed marijuana.

Katy Travis of the Drug-Free Coalition of Tippecanoe County said the
group has not yet established a stance on the legalization policy, but
she said she would like to see more information from states that have
decriminalized marijuana.

"There really hasn't been a lot of positive reports, so we would like
to see more education from these states," she said. "I think that
every state is having these conversations. It's legal in Michigan,
which is a state that is very close to us, so it's totally normal for
us to be discussing it."

Indiana State Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, successfully pushed
lawmakers to study the issue. She says the state has "draconian"
marijuana laws.

But based on how marijuana cases are handled in Tippecanoe County,
Harrington disagrees. He further points to state statute.

In Indiana, the highest classification for marijuana is a Class C
felony, punishable by two to eight years incarceration. It's for
people caught with 10 or more pounds of marijuana, Harrington said.

Thirty grams to 10 pounds of marijuana is a Class D felony, punishable
by six months to three years.

Less than 30 grams is a misdemeanor.

"In Tippecanoe County, first-time offenders are treated just like
first-time offenders for public intoxication and minor consumption,"
Harrington said. "If it's a small amount, the person is offered
diversion or withheld from prosecution.

"We would rather pursue alcohol and drug treatment instead of a

He noted that his office works closely with the courts and
specifically Judge Gregory Donat of Tippecanoe Superior Court 4, where
most misdemeanor and Class D felony marijuana charges are filed.

Last year, a total of 290 misdemeanors and 91 Class D felony cases
were filed in Donat's court, according to numbers provided by County
Clerk Christa Coffey.

Lafayette resident Alonzo Harris said the legalization of marijuana is
worth discussing now.

"I think it could have benefits, and not just for smokers," he said.
"Police probably spend a lot of time and energy dealing with small
possession and usage cases, and I think they would rather be working
on more serious issues."

Harris said although he supports legalization, strict limitations
should be placed on when and where one could smoke.

"Never in public. That is nothing you should impose on someone else,"
he said. "If the law states that people are allowed to smoke in their
own homes, then I'm sure everyone would be happy.

"But talk is talk. I don't see Indiana passing this anytime soon or
ever. We still can't buy beer on Sunday, so why would weed be high on
the approval list?"

Dombkowski, the West Lafayette police chief, said his department
handles marijuana arrests as mandated by Tippecanoe County judges.
That means first-time offenders caught with less than 30 grams of
marijuana -- at 29 grams, it's enough for multiple uses -- get a
ticket and a court date.

Still, marijuana is one of the focuses for the West Lafayette Police
Department's narcotics unit, which was formed about two years ago with
the purpose of focusing on street-level sales.

Dombkowski said that's not due to marijuana itself, but because of an
underlying "subculture of dealers."

"Marijuana just happens to be one of the things they deal," he said.
"It doesn't matter at times what the drug is -- you can go to a single
source and order a smorgasboard. ... It's not about the drug; it's
about the underbelly. Really, it's about money."

Dombkowski points to recent violent crimes in Tippecanoe County, such
as a group of men who targeted marijuana dealers in home invasion
robberies. Investigators also have alleged that the April 2010
shooting death of Lafayette resident Kory Rogers was a botched robbery
over cash and marijuana.

"That's why we focus on it so much. The user part is a separate,
different element. Our investigations focus on distribution."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.