Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson. Staff photo by Dan Carden
Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson. Staff photo by Dan Carden
Northwest Indiana next year will be bordered by two states, Illinois and Michigan, where recreational marijuana is legal for adults to use.

That almost certainly means many more people traveling through or visiting the Region will be arrested for marijuana possession, clogging up county jails and courts with nonviolent offenders nabbed for having a drug that's acceptable to consume in their home state.

Democrats in the Indiana Senate last week said they believe that's a huge waste of Hoosier taxpayer dollars.

So they plan to file legislation, when the General Assembly convenes in January, to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

"For simple possession of minor amounts of marijuana you will not go to jail," said Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson.

"You will still be held accountable within the judicial system, but it will become an infraction and not a misdemeanor as it currently is."

Lanane said under the Democrats' proposal, set to be sponsored by state Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, the process of being stopped by police for marijuana possession would be similar to getting a speeding ticket, rather than the potentially life-altering ordeal it now is.

"When those folks are arrested they're taken somewhere and it's the county jail. And they stay there, some of them, far too long, because they simply can't make bond," Lanane said.

"So it's all part of this process of bond reform and jail overcrowding that we need to look at."

According to Lanane, possession of marijuana is the second-highest incident for arrest in Indiana, and having even small amounts of the drug can result in up to 18 months behind bars.

"We're not saying it should be legalized. We're saying possession of small amounts should be decriminalized," Lanane said.

The Republican-controlled Legislature repeatedly has refused to act on prior Democratic proposals to either decriminalize or legalize marijuana in Indiana, based on the theory that a person using marijuana eventually will turn to more dangerous and addictive drugs.

However, with legal marijuana available in states adjacent to 15 of Indiana's 92 counties, many county leaders, including Lake County Council President Ted Bilski, D-Hobart, are asking for decriminalization simply to avoid overburdening law enforcement.

Lanane said they're telling him: "Stop clogging up our jails, stop clogging up our judicial system by putting people in jail for possession of small amounts of marijuana."

Besides marijuana decriminalization, Senate Democrats plan to focus during the 10-week legislative session on proposals to reform Indiana's redistricting process and to require the safe storage and sale of firearms.

On redistricting, Lanane said the drawing of new legislative district boundaries following the 2020 U.S. Census ought to be done by a nonpartisan citizens commission, instead of by the state lawmakers who have the most to gain from favorable lines.

"We believe that it's time to finally end the process of manipulating state voting maps in favor of a particular political party," Lanane said. "I don't think there's any doubt that's what occurred in the last go-around in terms of redistricting in the state of Indiana."

State Sen. David Niezgodski, D-South Bend, agreed. He said, "The voter should have the right to choose their elected officials. The elected officials shouldn't be the ones choosing their voters."

On guns, Lanane said Senate Democrats are calling for all private gun sales to be processed through a federally licensed dealer to ensure a background check is completed before the transaction is finalized.

Likewise, Democrats want gun owners with children in their homes to be required to lock up their weapons, or consistently use trigger locks, to ensure children aren't able to access guns or shoot them if they do.

"Research shows that kids that get the weapons, that are committing some of these mass shootings at schools, get them from their homes. Even responsible gun owners want to see this measure because obviously if something happens that looks bad on them," said state Sen. J.D. Ford, D-Indianapolis, a Purdue University Northwest graduate.

Hoosier lawmakers return to the Statehouse Jan. 6 and are expected to meet through March 11, after which they'll adjourn for the year.

There are 10 Democrats in the 50-member Senate.
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