Getting wise about weed


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 amidst the rubble and twisted steel otherwise

known as "the people's 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 particular to 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


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


And, as SB 192 implies, 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.