Pubdate: Sun, 23 Sep 2012
Source: Pharos-Tribune (Longport, IN)
Copyright: 2012 The Pharos-Tribune
Author: Maureen Hayden, CNHI Statehouse Bureau


Retired Logan Corrections Officer Pushing to Decriminalize Marijuana 

INDIANAPOLIS - Chad Padgett is a retired juvenile corrections officer 
from Logansport who found himself in an unexpected place last summer: 
Testifying in front of the legislature's sentencing policy study 
committee holding a hearing on the merits of relaxing the state's 
marijuana laws.

Padgett, representing a national organization of former and current 
law enforcement officers, said locking people up for possessing pot 
was a waste of public resources that could be better spent targeting 
what he called a "true threat to society."

No legislation came out of that committee, but Padgett and others are 
convinced it cleared the way for a more serious discussion sure to 
take place in the next legislative session.

That is, whether Indiana should join a growing number of states 
decriminalizing marijuana possession - treating it like a speeding 
ticket that results in a fine instead the threat of jail or prison time.

"The conversation (in the Statehouse) is shifting dramatically," said 
Padgett. "It used to be that you couldn't even say the word 
'marijuana' out loud."

Now there's some serious noise. Last week, state Sen. Brent Steele, 
an influential Republican senator who will author legislation that 
rewrites Indiana's criminal code, said he'll include a provision that 
makes possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana an infraction 
rather than a crime.

Ten grams is equivalent to about one-third of an ounce, roughly 
enough to make 20 to 30 marijuana cigarettes.

The Bedford legislator said Indiana would be following 14 other 
states in the nation that have already rolled back their criminal 
penalties for pot possession.

"I don't think those states are filled with drug-crazed people as a 
result," Steele said.

But he does think those states are saving millions of dollars in 
money that would have been spent in prosecution, probation, and jail 
and prison costs.

"Money," he said, "that we could spend on something else."

Steele's support is critical: Seen as a rock-ribbed, law-and-order 
guy, he's not the most likely legislator to advocate for an issue 
once relegated to the political fringe. He's been a steady ally of 
the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, which opposes 
decriminalizing marijuana possession.

"It's a sign of how things are really changing," said Tom Angell, 
spokesman for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, or LEAP, the 
organization that Padgett represented at last summer's hearing on the 
state's marijuana laws.

"The debate about marijuana used to be 'the cops versus the 
hippies'," said Angell. "We thought there was need to help people 
understand this was an issue that affects everybody, whether you're a 
drug user or not."

When the Connecticut legislature voted to decriminalize marijuana 
possession earlier this year, supporters of the bill said it would 
save the state about $11 million in law enforcement costs.

"Budgetary issues are driving these conversations in a lot of state 
legislatures," Angell said. "And a lot of local governments are 
asking the same thing: Are we going to keep using our dollars 
arresting people for pot or we going to use those dollars to fill in 
our potholes."

The fiscal impact of Steele's proposal is yet unknown, but the 
dollars that could be saved by reducing the penalty for pot 
possession will be part of the fiscal impact statement produced by 
the Legislative Services Agency, the legislature's non-partisan research arm.

Steele's proposal is likely to meet some tough opposition from 
critics who will argue that marijuana is a gateway drug and that 
decriminalizing it sends the wrong message to young people.

But what may help the money argument is the shift in public sentiment 
about pot. Last October, a Gallup poll showed a record high number of 
Americans favored legalizing marijuana. Gallup's history with that 
question illustrates the shift: When Gallup first asked about 
legalizing marijuana in 1969, more than 80 percent of Americans were 
against it. In 2006, opposition dropped to 60 percent. By 2011, 
opposition dropped to 46 percent. That 2011 poll found that 54 
percent of Midwesterners favored legalizing marijuana.

That's not what Sen. Steele wants to do with his legislation, but it 
does indicate to him that the public will support lawmakers having a 
good debate on the issue.

"You can be tough on crime and still use some common sense about how 
to spend our resources," Steele said. "I've said this before and I'm 
going to keep saying this: We need to lock people up who we're afraid 
of, not people we're mad at. We might be mad at people who are 
smoking dope, but it's not doing any good to keep locking them up."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom