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UPDATE: Lawmakers ponder pot

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By Megan Banta

Advocates for legalizing marijuana dominated a four-hour Statehouse hearing Thursday afternoon but lawmakers didn't say whether they would proceed with legislation.

Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, who proposed a study of the issue earlier this year, told the Criminal Law and Sentencing Policy Committee that she had no agenda other than to "start talking about this."

She said the idea for the study came from her "experience sitting in court as an attorney" and "looking at young kids pleading to minor possession charges."

"I said to myself, 'Why are we doing this? We need to fix this,'" Tallian said.

Currently, Indiana law dictates that marijuana possession is a felony unless it is a first-time offense and the amount of marijuana is less than one ounce.

Tallian and advocates of legalizing marijuana said the law could use some reform. But the senator did not make specific suggestions about how the law should be changed.

Dick Huber, a retired physician from Greenwood who is also an active advocate for smoking bans, was the sole witness against possible reforms, arguing that marijuana, along with alcohol and cigarettes, serves as a gateway drug to more harmful drugs like cocaine and heroin.

But Dan Abrahamson, director of legal affairs for Drug Policy Alliance, an organization based in New York, dismissed that argument.

Abrahamson said studies have shown the decriminalization of marijuana not only does not increase its use among young people but also that drug use rates in states that have legalized marijuana are less than or comparable to those in Indiana and other states that have not.

Abrahamson said no state has gone back on its decision to legalize marijuana.

"Marijuana has not yet been recriminalized in any state," he said.

Abrahamson said Indiana faces little to no risk of federal intervention if state legislators choose to decriminalize marijuana.

"There is nothing in the United States Constitution that requires Indiana to criminalize anything under its state law," Abrahamson said.

"If Indiana decides to lessen state penalties for marijuana-related offenses or to abolish certain marijuana offenses altogether, or to legalize marijuana, just for medical purposes, this committee may do so, today," Abrahamson said.

Abrahamson also said the state could benefit from the decision to legalize marijuana, even more so if legislators then choose to set up a distribution system for medical marijuana to bring in tax revenue.

He estimated that Indiana could raise as much as $44 million annually through sales tax alone if it taxes and regulated marijuana distributions.

Noah Mamber, legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-legalization group based in Washington D.C., agreed.

Mamber called marijuana prohibition a "colossal waste of public resources and human lives ruined by arrest and incarceration."

"Marijuana prohibition simply does not work," he said.

Mamber said legalizing marijuana would not only bring in tax revenue but also save law enforcement an estimated $148.8 million annually.

"Ending prohibition would save millions and allow police to focus on investigating violent crimes instead," he said.

The Criminal Law and Sentencing Policy Study Committee is a bi-partisan committee comprised of eight lawmakers from both chambers, in addition to representatives of the criminal justice system, including the Prosecuting Attorneys Council, Public Defenders Council, Indiana Parole Board, Probation Officers Professional Association, Indiana Department of Corrections Commissioner Bruce Lemon and Judge Stephen Heimann of the Bartholomew County Circuit Court.

The committee usually meets several times during the summer and early fall, though no future meeting dates are currently on the calendar, according to Peg McLeish, deputy chief of staff and press secretary for the Indiana Senate Democrats.

ââ'¬Å"The marijuana policy topic is just one of 11 topics that this particular committee is charged with studying and making recommendations on before Nov. 1, 2011,ââ'¬Â McLeish said in an email to NUVO.

The above is one of an ongoing series of reports from the Indiana Statehouse by students at the Franklin College Pulliam School of Journalism. Rebecca Townsend contributed to this report.

Editor's Note: This story was originally posted July 29, but has since been updated with new material, including the sole opponent's name and information on the Criminal Law and Sentencing Policy Study Committee.

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