An Indiana State Police pot bust in Macy, Ind. (from top, left) ; Gov. Mike Pence; former ISP Supt. Paul Whitesell, who advocated for legalization in 2012; State Sen. Karen Talian who authored a breakthrough summer study bill in 2011; and long-time legalization advocate Bill Levine of Broad Ripple.
An Indiana State Police pot bust in Macy, Ind. (from top, left) ; Gov. Mike Pence; former ISP Supt. Paul Whitesell, who advocated for legalization in 2012; State Sen. Karen Talian who authored a breakthrough summer study bill in 2011; and long-time legalization advocate Bill Levine of Broad Ripple.
By BRIAN A. HOWEY
and MAUREEN HAYDEN


NASHVILLE, Ind. – The legal sale of recreational marijuana began Wednesday in Colorado and will be followed later this year by the state of Washington, but Hoosiers shouldn't hold their breath about that happening any time soon in Indiana.

Even though recent polling shows rapidly evolving views from a majority of Hoosiers, the political establishment in Indiana appears to be firmly moored to the Drug War era that has seen more than 160,000 residents charged with various criminal and misdemeanor marijuana violations over the past decade.

In the past, voluminous public support on issues such as a state lottery and gaming occurred well before the Indiana General Assembly acted. It allowed a referendum on the lottery in 1988 (which passed with a landslide 62%), and the passage of riverboat casino laws in 1993. But it took the defeat of Republican House Speaker J. Roberts Daily in 1986 and a well-organized lobby to convince legislators that paved the way for the 1988 referendum. Daily had been a vociferous opponent of any gaming expansion.

During a 2012 gubernatorial debate in Zionsville, Gov. Mike Pence said he opposed any marijuana law reforms and viewed marijuana as a "gateway" drug. His Democrat opponent John Gregg generally agreed, but added that medical marijuana would be worth studying. Libertarian Rupert Boneham observed, "It's a plant."

But public opinion in Indiana is shifting. In the October 2012 Howey/DePauw Indiana Battleground Poll, for the first time in decades the marijuana question – in this case decriminalization – was tested. The question by Republican pollster Christine Matthews and Democratic pollster Fred Yang was, "Currently it is a misdemeanor crime in Indiana to possess a small amount of marijuana. The legislature may consider making it an infraction rather than a crime to possess a small amount of marijuana. Do you favor or oppose making possession of a small amount of marijuana an infraction rather than a crime?"

The response was 54% favored decriminalization and 38% opposed. When the April 2013 HPI Poll asked the same question, 56% favored and 37% opposed.

In a Ball State University Bowen Center Poll conducted by Princeton Survey Research released in December, a majority of Indiana residents believe that marijuana should be legally regulated like alcohol and nearly 80% of Hoosiers support taxing it. Fifty-two percent of respondents said that cannabis “should be regulated like alcohol” and 45% opposed. On the taxation question, 78% supported and 19% opposed.

An October 2013 national Gallup poll showed 58% of Americans believe that marijuana should be legal, an all-time high.

In 2013, criminal code reforms that originally would have downgraded low-level marijuana possession were amended to actually increase possession from a misdemeanor to a felony.

Currently, possessing 30 grams of marijuana or less is a misdemeanor in Indiana, but fines can be as high as $5,000 with incarceration up to a year. In Kentucky, it is a misdemeanor to possess up to 8 ounces of marijuana.

In late March 2013, in response to Gov. Pence’s criticism of legislation that rewrites Indiana’s criminal code to lower drug penalties, a Senate committee amended the criminal code reform bill to make punishment for marijuana crimes tougher than the legislation’s Republican authors had originally proposed.  House Bill 1006, which rewrites Indiana’s criminal code to lower drug penalties and toughen punishment for violent and sex offender, contained language that made most of the state’s marijuana crimes into misdemeanors. Bill supporters say the intent of the bill is divert drug users out of state prisons and into treatment programs, while reserving the prisons for the worst offenders.

Pence waited till mid-March to weigh in on House Bill 1006 and did so at a press briefing with TV and radio reporters, telling them, “I think we need to focus on reducing crime, not reducing penalties.”

Under current Indiana law, possessing marijuana is a felony unless it’s a first-time offense or under one ounce. As originally drafted, House Bill 1006 dropped all the marijuana possession charges down to a misdemeanor level. It also made a first-time offense of possessing less than one ounce of marijuana into a class C misdemeanor punishable with up to 60 days in jail. Currently, it’s a class A misdemeanor, which carries a penalty of up to a year in prison. Pence was particularly critical of the original bill’s language that dropped possession of up to 10 pounds of marijuana from its current felony level down to a class A misdemeanor.

In 2011, a bill sponsored by State Sen. Karen Talian, D-Ogden Dunes, created a summer study committee on the issue. Its passage in the Indiana Senate came as a surprise and, perhaps, the first chapter in a reassessment of the laws. Two years later as she advocated the criminal code reforms, Talian would say, "“Just look the polling on this issue. The public is in favor of this. The governor is the only one who’s been talking about tougher penalties for drug crimes. Across the country, the train is moving in the opposite direction.”

There have been some Indiana officials ranging from police chiefs and prosecutors willing to have the discussion on marijuana issues. Most notable was Indiana State Police Superintendent Paul Whitesell who told members of the State Budget Committee in December 2012, “My thought is, toward the zenith of my career, it is here, it’s going to stay. That’s an awful lot of victimization that goes with it. If it were up to me I do believe I would legalize it and tax it, particularly in sight of the fact that several other states have now come to that part of their legal system as well.”

Marijuana laws around Indiana are changing. Michigan passed a medical marijuana law in 2008 via referendum with 63% support. In 2013, the Illinois legislature passed a medical marijuana law by a 61-57 margin in the House and 35-21 in the Senate. In August, the city of Chicago implemented a civil ticketing of marijuana offenders possessing under 15 grams in an effort to reduce jail overcrowding and the need for police to concentrate on violent crime. Chicago ticketed nearly 400 offenders by December, while its homicide rate dropped 18% in 2013 and crime overall dropped 16%, according to the Chicago Tribune.

In Ohio, petitions have been submitted and approved by the state ballot committee to legalize cannabis for medical purposes if the patient is 18 years old or older, but would only if prescribed by a physician.

Until recently, Indiana marijuana advocacy groups such as Indiana NORML provided little data and resources. That is beginning to change as its website has been updated.

In the past, advocates for law changes could easily be perceived as associated with the counter culture.

With the distinct shift in public opinion among Hoosiers, the natural next step will be the formation of an advocacy front similar to the Indiana Freedom group that is opposing HJR-6, the constitutional marriage amendment. Indiana Freedom is headed by Megan Robertson, a seasoned Republican campaign consultant. With Republicans holding super majorities in the Indiana House and Senate, as well as most statewide offices, advocacy for marijuana law change will need to come from Republicans, who look and act like Republicans, and who can deliver a new message: The times they are a-changin'.