Friday, July 29, 2011

Panel urged to reform state marijuana law

By: Sophia Voravong :: Journal and Courier :: July 29th, 2011

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 committee.

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 conviction."

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."

-- Contributing: The Associated Press

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