Marijuana: a plant known to some as a means to a high, for its medicinal qualities, as a gateway to the other drugs, as a source of tax revenue for cash-strapped states, as a societal nuisance, an industry crop or whatever else a group wants to spin it as. The laws around marijuana, with all its antithetical roles and titles, have evolved in the last century.

As the federal government continues to label cannabis a Schedule I drug — meaning it has no medicinal purpose and is prone to abuse — nearly half of states in the last 20 years have decriminalized possession, approved pharmaceutical marijuana or outright legalized it.

In the same month Colorado businesses made their first lawful sales of recreational marijuana, a Northwestern Indiana lawmaker filed a bill to decriminalize the substance for the fourth year in a row, and local groups are plotting their next moves toward complete legalization in Indiana.

While public polling data shows majority support in the nation and state for cannabis legalization, efforts to further ease marijuana-related penalties — let alone allowing medical marijuana like Illinois or Michigan, or outright legalization like Washington or Colorado — will likely fall flat for the fourth year in a row.

First-term Republican Gov. Mike Pence has said he’d oppose any measure to further lessen penalties. Still, activists for marijuana law reform push forward.

Katie Brown, an Evansville mother and activist, is associated with three local groups aiming to end the “prohibition of cannabis”: Evansville Moms for Marijuana, International Women’s Cannabis Coalition of Indiana and the newly formed Kentuckiana Cannabis Activists for RElegalization, a registered nonprofit group.

“The only thing criminal about cannabis are the laws against it. The people that use it don’t hurt others; the enforcement of prohibition does,” Brown said.

On Jan. 8, Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, filed a bill to not only significantly decriminalize marijuana possession and dealing penalties, but also to allow hemp farming.

And Southern Indiana Sen. Richard Young, D-Milltown, filed Senate Bill 357, which would permit industrial hemp growing, as long as the federal government permits it. After clearing the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources by a 7-0 vote Friday, the bill is headed to the Senate floor for debate.

Hemp is a cannabis plant — without the psychoactive properties of the substance prescribed or purchased in stores in other states — that is used for its fiber and seeds for various products. Similar hemp farming legislation is being proposed in Kentucky, Tennessee and several other states.

On top of that, a House bill that would provide a defense against a marijuana possession charge for people with a valid prescription was filed Jan. 14 by Rep. Sue Errington, D-Muncie.

SENATE BILL 314

Possessing marijuana would never be a felony in Indiana under Tallian’s decriminalization bill, Senate Bill 314. Possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana would be a Class C infraction, like a basic traffic violation, with a maximum fine of $500.

Possession of over two ounces would be a Class B misdemeanor for a first offense or a Class A misdemeanor if a person had two prior convictions in the last five years. Sentences for possession would be suspended for those without marijuana-related convictions in the last five years.

“My motivation is that we shouldn’t be putting children in jail in Indiana for something that’s legal halfway around the United States,” Tallian said.

During prohibition, possession of alcohol wasn’t against the law; it was illegal to manufacture and sale, Tallian said. “Even then we recognized that there is a difference between that.”

Tallian’s filing marks the fourth time she’s introduced a bill to the Indiana Senate to decriminalize marijuana. Last year, her bill didn’t receive a hearing in the Corrections & Criminal Law Committee.

She’s negotiating with committee chairman Sen. Mike Young, R-Indianapolis, to get a hearing this session, she said.

But even with a hearing, she’s not holding her breath about the bill being signed into law this year, especially during a shortened session.

“I don’t have any illusions that it’s going to get out of the Senate and out of the House and to Pence’s desk this year. I just don’t believe it,” she said.

Southwestern Indiana Sen. Jim Tomes, R-Wadesville, is a member of the Corrections & Criminal Law Committee, and in a statement to the Courier & Press said: “I would not support a proposal to decriminalize the possession of marijuana.”

Vanderburgh County Prosecutor Nick Hermann said Tallian’s bill “is not really something that anyone needs to treat very seriously.”

Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican in his first term as executive, said on the campaign trail he wouldn’t consider lessening marijuana penalties at all, and, given his stance during the 2013 session on amending the criminal code, that doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon.

Still, possession charges will be lessened slightly in July after Pence signed House Bill 1006.

“I think everybody is afraid they’ll be seen as soft on crime or something,” Tallian said on other legislators and politicians.

The 2014 legislative agenda for Senate Democrats excludes any mention of marijuana or other drug-related issues.

Tallian believes public opinion is “far ahead of the legislators,” and recent public polling data supports that claim, she said.

On a national level, 58 percent of Americans polled said marijuana should be legalized, according to a 2013 Gallup poll.

The results of a 2013 Ball State University Bowen Center for Public Affairs policy research study showed a similar sentiment in Indiana.

Just over 52 percent of Hoosiers surveyed said marijuana should be regulated like alcohol and tobacco. When asked if they thought marijuana should be taxed like alcohol and tobacco products, 78 percent answered “yes.”

‘PEOPLE ARE CHANGING THEIR MINDS’

Indiana is flanked by states that have reformed their marijuana laws. Medical marijuana systems are in full force in Michigan and Illinois, and Ohio has decriminalized possession of up to 3.5 ounces since the ‘70s.

Hoping to push some reform in Indiana, Brown said Kentuckiana CARE and the women’s cannabis coalition plan to organize and educate the public on what she says has been years of misinformation.

Both groups are in support of Tallian and Young’s Senate bills, and Errington’s House bill.

“The law needs to be changed because innocent lives are being ruined over a plant that has never killed anyone,” Brown said.

She said the group, with a member base of about 40 people, plans to lobby state legislators and hold rallies and events in support of legalization. They have a daily online push urging followers to call their legislators to express their support for the pending legislation.

She said they’d like to see full legalization, not just decriminalization, which would include for industrial, recreational and medicinal use.

“Nationally, people are changing their minds I hope the good people of Indiana can see what’s happening around the nation and realize that this is an opportunity for economic growth in the state that should not be passed up.”

On New Year’s Day, Colorado began allowing shops to sell marijuana for recreational use, which has been met with a high demand from customers. Like alcohol, buyers must be 21 and can’t drive while intoxicated in Colorado. It is also illegal to use marijuana in public.

Washington also legalized recreational marijuana in 2012. According to The Associated Press, the Northwestern state is expected to have retail shops open this spring. Legalization in both states was the result of a public referendum and was decided through the legislature.

Twenty-two other states have either decriminalized marijuana or created a medicinal marijuana system since 1972, when Oregon was the first state to decriminalize possession. Additionally, six more states have legislation pending that would allow for medical marijuana.

This month, New Hampshire legislators voted to legalize marijuana, much like Colorado or Washington. And with a recent petition drive, Alaska — with already lax marijuana laws — will likely have a ballot measure on Election Day to fully legalize it.

Despite marijuana still being a Schedule I drug under federal guidelines, the Justice Department stated states may allow people to use, grow and purchase the drug, so long as a person doesn’t sell to minors, grow pot on public lands or possess pot on federal property, according to The Associated Press.

Tallian, while accepting of this year’s slim chance of “modernization” of marijuana laws, remains resolute. Much like some of her previous legislative reforms, it just takes time, she said.

“We’ll just have to keep pushing to try get our state in the mainstream,” she said. “I think you just have to keep pushing.”

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