The Herald Bulletin

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July 11, 2011

State senator surprised by support for legalized marijuana bill

INDIANAPOLIS — When state Sen. Karen Tallian first floated the idea of introducing a bill to look at legalizing marijuana, her Statehouse colleagues warned the Portage Democrat that it could kill her chances for re-election.  

But the 60-year-old mother of three thought there might be some public support for taking the crime out of pot, so she sent out an informal survey, via email, to constituents in her northwest Indiana district. Within 72 hours of sending the email, she received more than 2,000 responses. Almost all of them were supportive, and most of the supportive ones said the state should treat marijuana like alcohol: Control its sale and tax it as a revenue enhancer.

“I was floored by the response,” Tallian said. Emboldened by the support, Tallian filed a bill last January to begin a serious conversation about the weedy issue.

Her bill, which passed the Republican-controlled Statehouse, directs a legislative summer study committee to look at Indiana’s marijuana laws and potential alternatives, including legalized “medical marijuana” for use in palliative care. The committee’s first meeting is on July 28.

Since the bill’s filing and passage, she’s received even more support, ranging from conservative Republicans to liberal Democrats, she said. She’s received some negative feedback, but few like the comments from someone who told her she should be “shamed” for even bringing up the idea.

“I’m kind of shocked and amazed,” Tallian said. “I haven’t been demonized.”

Among those who may testify at the committee hearing are representatives from the organization Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). LEAP’s members include former prosecutors, police officers and judges who say marijuana arrests take up resources, including jail space and prison beds, that could be better spent fighting other crimes.

Tallian also hopes the committee will hear from a Harvard University economist who testified during the session that legalizing and taxing marijuana could raise millions of dollars in revenues for the state. Tallian, who is a lawyer, said the idea for the bill came to her when she was sitting in court one day and watched three young defendants sentenced for possession of small amounts of marijuana. “I thought, what a collossal waste of time and resources,” Tallian said.

There are some skeptics on the study committee, though. Among them is Rep. Ralph Foley, an influential Republican from Martinsville who chairs the House Judiciary Committee.

Foley, who is also a lawyer, worries that legalizing marijuana, even for medicinal use, opens the door wider for drug abuse. “I’ve seen too much trouble start with marijuana,” Foley said. “Unless I’m convinced strongly otherwise, I’m not inclined to support legalizing marijuana.”

Foley cites the difficulty that other states have had regulating the drug once it becomes legal. He noted California’s experience with medicinal marijuana and the proliferation of what he called “pot shops” that opened up to service people who were able to easily obtain marijuana prescriptions from their doctors. “There was so many people with back ailments,” Foley said.

Thirty states have reduced their penalties for marijuana possession. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have approved marijuana to treat a range of illnesses, but its use remains controversial.

On Friday, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration ruled marijuana has no accepted medical use and should remain classified as a highly dangerous drug like heroin. Opponents of the DEA ruling are expected to fight that ruling in court.

Maureen Hayden is Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI Indiana newspapers. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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