By BRIAN A. HOWEY

NASHVILLE, Ind. - With neighboring states Illinois and Michigan legalizing recreational marijuana, and Indiana's two most populous counties moving toward fines for mere possession as well as foregoing prosecution, Indiana Democrats are seeking to decriminalize while the Republican General Assembly is doubling down on prohibition.

On Thursday, Democratic attorney general candidate and State Sen. Karen Tallian's bill  announced a bill (SB 114) would reduce the penalty for the possession of less than one ounce of marijuana to an infraction for a first offense, which means an officer could simply give them a ticket. "No more jail time. We just don't understand why the Republican legislature and the governor refuse to understand that that's what Hoosiers want," said Tallian.

An October 2016 WTHR/Howey Politics Poll found 73% of Hoosiers backing medicinal marijuana, while 58% of self-identified conservatives backed the concept.

Last October, Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears announced his department would no longer prosecute possession of an ounce of marijuana. In December, the Lake County Council endorsed an ordinance calling for possession fines of between $50 and $250. “I don’t want anybody to think we’re advocating for the legalization of marijuana. We’re not,” Lake County Council President Ted Bilski told the NWI Times. “We’re trying to be fiscally responsible. How do we not bog down our criminal justice system? How do we not overcrowd our jails?” 

According to the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program, marijuana possession arrests increased in Indiana from 7,431 in 2014, to 7,802 in 2015 and 8,953 in 2016. The total arrests for sales and possession increased from 8,691 in 2014 to 10,143 in 2016.

State Sen. Mike Young, R-Indianapolis, is pushing back. He authored SB436, which would give embattled Attorney General Curtis Hill the option of prosecuting marijuana possession cases. The bill would "grant the attorney general concurrent jurisdiction to prosecute certain crimes if the prosecuting attorney refuses as a matter of policy to prosecute those crimes." It would establish "a procedure for the attorney general to assume jurisdiction, and requires the county to reimburse the attorney general for expenses incurred in prosecuting crimes in the county."

Earlier this week, Politico reported that more than 40 U.S. states could allow some form of legal marijuana by the end of 2020, including deep red Mississippi and South Dakota. “We’re cautiously optimistic that we can win more marijuana reform ballot initiatives on one Election Day than on any previous Election Day,” said Matthew Schweich, deputy director of the Marijuana Policy Project.

Tallian said at a Thursday Statehouse press conference that 12 states and the District of Columbia are fully legal, and 27 states have no criminal penalties for possession. "Ohio did that in 1975 and the last time I looked Ohio does not have a history of reefer madness. But, Indiana clearly lags behind and we are now one of only 14 states that allows only CBD oil."

Gov. Holcomb is clearly in the prohibition camp, telling Howey Politics Indiana last summer he is against decriminalization and would only consider medicinal marijuana if the federal government removed it as a Schedule 1 drug. “I’ve not been persuaded by that argument that by decriminalizing it will make the overarching public problem go away. I think we’re sending a mixed message.”

When HPI asked him if marijuana was properly designated as a “Schedule 1” drug under the Uniform Narcotics Act of 1932, placing it along side heroin and morphine, Holcomb deflected. “Not to be a blockhead about it, but I’ve shared this: With federal leadership, that it is illegal,” Holcomb said. “I have a hard time picking and choosing what laws to obey. I’ve taken a couple of oaths in life at upholding the law. Just because others are choosing not to, doesn’t make it right for me not to. Even as attractive financially as it might be, (that) doesn’t make it right. The hurdle we have to get over is there is very little American medical research on this drug.”

That was true in the 1930s when Harry J. Anslinger headed the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger claimed, without any scientific research, that marijuana caused people to commit violent crimes and become overtly sexual. When the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was passed, the American Medical Association opposed, saying it inhibited prescribing physicians.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dr. Woody Myers told HPI in August, “The state does need to explore legalization for medical purposes and decriminalization, making it far less an onerous crime than it is today.” A second Democratic candidate, Josh Owens, is for legalization.