David Hoppe

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:: Saying yes to pot

Senate approves study

By David Hoppe

This year's gathering of the Indiana General Assembly will be remembered as a shambles. Republicans got greedy, Democrats got lost and the legislative process turned into a train wreck.

But in amidst the rubble and twisted steel otherwise known as "the peoples' business," a few rays of common sense, were able to shine through.

Almost unremarked in last week's tumult was the State Senate's approval of Senate Bill 192, by Portage's Democratic Senator, Karen Tallian. This bill calls for a study of Indiana's marijuana policies. The study would show what it costs us to arrest and lock up people for smoking pot, as well as the potential forms of revenue more lenient marijuana laws could generate for the state through regulation and taxation.

The Criminal Law and Sentencing Policy Study Committee would conduct the study later this year. SB 192 empowers the committee to make findings and recommendations regarding current marijuana law and penalties. It would make an accounting of what our present policies cost the state, while also examining what might happen if marijuana were made available for medical use, and possession of small amounts were decriminalized. Finally, the committee would report on what the state could expect if it controlled marijuana like alcohol, with regulated sales and taxes.

Amazingly, this Democrat-conceived bill was approved in the Republican-dominated Senate by a vote of 28-21. Now it goes to the House for further consideration. Since all SB 192 seeks to do is collect and present information, it may stand a chance of being authorized, in which case a lot of what people already know about our marijuana laws will be bound beneath a cover bearing the state seal.

This is encouraging to anyone who has ever wondered at the bizarre, utterly irrational approach our governments - local, state and federal - have chosen when it comes to pot. Since federal enactment of the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937, American law enforcement has clung to the idea that it could do to marijuana what it failed to accomplish with alcohol: make prohibition work.

Prohibition was this country's attempt to ban alcoholic beverages. The Volstead Act, as Prohibition was called, went into effect in 1920, in spite of President Woodrow Wilson's veto. Wilson must have surmised that the law was unenforceable. Over the course of the next 13 years, not only did the American people refuse to swear off liquor, they aided and abetted the rise of an illegal underground, gangsters, to supply it.

In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had seen enough. FDR got Congress to repeal Prohibition. People could drink legally again. Local, state and federal governments quit trying to stop this behavior and, instead, began collecting revenue, in the form of taxes. Now the government was profiting, instead of the bootleggers.

The attempt to resurrect Prohibition and aim it at marijuana in 1937 was driven by race and class bias. As Harry Anslinger, the country's first drug czar, told Congress: "Most of the marijuana smokers in the U.S. are Negroes, Mexicans and entertainers." No one, that is, with the power to stop the government from bullying them.

The notion that using marijuana was part of an underclass, and that this gave law enforcement the power to do whatever it wanted when it came to searches and seizures, persisted into the 1960s.

But when middle class white kids began turning on, history shifted gears. Marijuana was finding its way into privileged households (albeit with towels pressed against the bottom of bedroom doors) and people were finding that the world didn't fall to pieces if they got high.

Before long, these same people were middle-aged, with successful careers. Lo and behold, they were still getting high (if they could get the stuff without feeling hopelessly uncool) and the world was still intact.

There were, unfortunately, needless casualties along the way. People were busted and some are still doing ridiculous amounts of hard prison time for having the bad luck or bad judgment to be caught holding. Why, even our governor was nabbed when he was a college student in 1970. He was lucky and walked away with a $350 fine, though that was serious money in those days.

Government's prejudice against marijuana has also served to inhibit potentially valuable scientific research that could confirm or credibly rebut claims for marijuana's medicinal value.

And, as SB 192 implies, the policy of marijuana prohibition has burned through large amounts of public funds, diverted police officers from more important jobs, tied up already overcrowded court dockets, and further stressed our prison system. Meanwhile, local and state governments have denied themselves valuable tax revenues and prevented citizens from making a legal living growing and dispensing a substance that experience demonstrates is far more benign than many legally sanctioned drugs like cigarettes and other, supposedly respectable, medications.

Even if SB 192 goes forward, there is no guarantee that reason will prevail in our otherwise dysfunctional Statehouse. But it's heartening that, in this dismal season, so many politicians were willing to put prejudice aside and say yes to finding out more about pot.