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Officials wary about easing marijuana laws

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Having a small amount of marijuana would result in a ticket and fine instead of an arrest and jail time under a proposal at the Statehouse.

Other states recently have legalized marijuana; and while Indiana is not considering legalizing the drug, a state senator is proposing that possessing a few grams of marijuana for personal use should be decriminalized and reduced to an infraction that would be resolved by paying a fine.

Making low-level drug possession into a civil offense instead of a crime could lessen the strain on courts, jails and prisons, said Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council, which he said generally supports lesser penalties for nonviolent crimes. Police also could be freed up to focus on more serious crimes, such as home burglaries and sexual assaults, he said.

Local police said that they already focus more on dealers and harder drugs than on going after people with small amounts of marijuana. They are concerned that decriminalization of marijuana would create more impaired driving and lead people to use harder drugs. Police officials estimated 75 percent of the crime in Johnson County is committed by people who are under the influence of drugs or who are stealing or robbing in order to get money for addictive drugs such as prescription pills and heroin.

Greenwood Police Department Assistant Chief Matt Fillenwarth questions some of the arguments made for legalization, especially that it’s a harmless drug. A double homicide was recently committed in the city by someone who wanted to steal a small amount of marijuana, he said.

State lawmakers who represent parts of Johnson County said they’re skeptical about the proposal to treat possession of illegal drugs the same as a speeding ticket. They said that they’d consider reduced sentences that are being proposed for various nonviolent offenses as part of an overall effort to curb prison overcrowding, but that they wouldn’t support outright decriminalization.

State Sen. Brent Waltz and State Rep. Woody Burton both said they found the push to legalize marijuana ironic at a time when lawmakers also are being asked to ban smoking from most public places.

State Sen. Greg Walker said it was a negative, self-destructive habit that should remain illegal; and State Rep. David Frizzell said he had concerns with marijuana’s impact on people’s health and increased health care costs if smoking marijuana became more widespread.

“The people who use it can endanger others, and we wouldn’t want to encourage impaired driving; but smoking marijuana also can have heavy health consequences,” Frizzell said. “It can cause much heavier damage to lungs than cigarettes in a much shorter period of time.”

State Rep. John Price said he had concerns about marijuana leading to heavier drug use, theft, mischief and other crimes.

Local law enforcement officials said they would enforce the laws but had reservations about making the drug legal.

A major concern would be that decriminalizing marijuana would make it more likely that people would drive under the influence, since it would be easier to get, Johnson County Sheriff Doug Cox.

Marijuana seriously impairs driver’s reaction time and can lead to more drug use and crime, Cox said. Legalizing it would send the wrong message and be inconsistent, he said.

“What’s going to happen is that someone’s going to get in a fatal accident after maybe smoking marijuana earlier that morning, since it stays in the system,” he said. “It’s been illegal for the 32 years I’ve been in law enforcement, and it should stay that way.”

Johnson County Prosecutor Brad Cooper said he would not want to see marijuana decriminalized because he wants to be able to prosecute impaired driving cases to the fullest extent of the law.

He said he’s already handled too many cases in which a driver was under the influence of marijuana and then hit and killed someone.

“You hear the mantra about how someone smoking pot in their basement isn’t hurting anyone,” he said. “Well, that comes to an end when they start driving impaired and weaving in and out of traffic. When you’re in a 10,000-pound machine going 60 to 70 mph, you are a weapon of destruction.”

Cooper said he’d personally favor being given the option of writing tickets for small amounts of marijuana if someone happened to have marijuana when not behind the wheel but would still want to be able to prosecute marijuana possession as a crime if circumstance warranted.

Police and prosecutors should be given more discretion about how to deal with marijuana cases, the way they can now with drug paraphernalia, Cooper said.

An officer can write a ticket for possessing marijuana pipes or other drug paraphernalia that would result in a $400 fine but no criminal record.

But they also can pursue criminal charges that could result in up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine, Cooper said.

Police and the prosecutor’s office handle each case on its own merits and can pursue the punishment that’s most appropriate, he said.

“If you give the cops and prosecutors discretion, then it could be nothing more than a fine or you could go to jail if you’re driving or it’s a repeat offense,” he said. “Let the facts of the case determine which way it should go.”

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