State police superintendent's marijuana endorsement boosts supporters' hopes, causes backlash

Chances for 2013 bill still up in air

INDIANAPOLIS - Bills to legalize marijuana in Indiana, at least in small amounts, face an uncertain future in the upcoming legislature, despite comments Tuesday from the Indiana State Police superintendent endorsing the idea of legalizing and taxing the drug. 

Superintendent Paul Whitesell made the statement during a Budget Committee hearing.

The State Police have since issued another statement backtracking on Whitesell's endorsement and saying they don't endorse legalization.

The whole thing is giving new publicity to upcoming marijuana decriminalization efforts.

Concerns over the cost of prosecuting and imprisoning small-time marijuana users is prompting decriminalization bills from at least two lawmakers, including Senate Criminal Matters Committee Chairman Brent Steele.

The Department of Corrections said 395 people have been sent to prison primarily on marijuana charges so far this year, and 604 new inmates have the drug somewhere on their list of charges.

In the summer of 2011, lawmakers held exploratory hearings on decriminalization, where they heard testimony about other states' experiences.

Dan Abrahamson of the Drug Policy Alliance said, "States that have enacted medical marijuana laws or that have decriminalized minor marijuana offenses have not experienced increases in crime, increases in drug use, increased access to drugs...including adolescents, or other negative consequences."

That's why Budget Committee member Sheila Klinker asked Whitesell his opinion Tuesday.

A spokesperson for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington said it's unusual that a top officer would say something like that, although other police believe it.

"When you talk to a lot of rank-and-file police officers, they think that marijuana reform or marijuana policy currently is a waste of time and that arresting people doesn't really stop people from using marijuana and can actually hurt the community at great cost to taxpayers," said Morgan Fox of the Marijuana Policy Project.

Although supporters believe a bill could pass, others believe Indiana is too conservative to do it at this point.

"Because of the fact that we are a conservative state, I probably would vote no for the reason that I think we have to look at other states and how they are going to control it and how they would look at taxing it," said Rep. Klinker, D-Lafayette, whose district includes a college campus.

Whitesell's statement has many lawmakers scrambling.

Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Danville, who headed the House Courts and Criminal Code Committee last year, said he has no idea what kind of a reception a decriminalization bill would get, although he says he would be pretty hesitant about supporting it. 

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