INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana's state police chief told lawmakers Tuesday that marijuana should be legalized and taxed, prompting his own agency to quickly walk back his statement as lawmakers consider decriminalization.
State police Superintendent Paul Whitesell told members of the State Budget Committee on Tuesday that he's followed the issue during his 40-year law enforcement career and believes "it is here, it's going to stay." He cited voter-passed measures in Colorado and Washington that allow adults to have small amounts of marijuana as evidence of a national shift on the issue.
"My thought is, toward the zenith of my career, it is here, it's going to stay," Whitesell told the panel. "That's an awful lot of victimization that goes with it.
"If it were up to me I do believe I would legalize it and tax it, particularly in sight of the fact that several other states have now come to that part of their legal system as well."
Capt. Dave Bursten, state police spokesman, quickly backtracked from Whitesell's statement Tuesday, saying the superintendent "rendered a philosophical opinion," not an official one.
"The making of such laws are not the purview of the State Police and he was not asked for an opinion in that context," Bursten wrote in a statement. "Although the Superintendent personally understands the theoretical argument for taxation and legalization, as a police officer with over 40 years of experience he does not support the legalization of marijuana."
Bursten added that no interviews with Whitesell would be granted.
Whitesell's statement was in response to Democratic Rep. Sheila Klinker's question about pending proposals to decriminalize small amounts of the drug. Klinker said after the hearing she was surprised to hear his response, but believes much of the country is changing its attitude on marijuana.
"I think the tendency throughout the United States is to control it, because the drug cartels are controlling us in many ways and getting a lot of our folks not only killed, but getting the money, rather than taxing the situation and controlling it," Klinker said.
Democratic Sen. Karen Tallian has proposed decriminalizing marijuana and Republican Sen. Brent Steele said he would consider a similar measure during the upcoming legislative session.
In Indiana, possessing 30 grams or less of marijuana is a Class A misdemeanor on the first offense and carries a sentence of up to one year. Possession of more than 30 grams — roughly an ounce — is a Class D felony that carries a sentence of one to three years in prison.
Supporters of decriminalization say the current manner of prosecuting those possessing pot crowds state prisons and damages young offenders' futures with a criminal record.
"As a practicing attorney, I've seen a significant amount of state dollars spent on prosecuting and incarcerating individuals caught with small amounts of marijuana," Steele said in a statement Tuesday. "We have to ask ourselves if this is the best use of our criminal justice resources.
"It's a matter of priorities, and I believe our focus should be on pursuing, prosecuting and incarcerating people who commit violent crimes, not simply people who make poor personal decisions."