Goshen News, Goshen, IN

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December 7, 2012

Local officials weigh in on drug

GOSHEN — Legalize marijuana? Not in our town.

Such was the general opinion expressed Friday by three area law enforcement officials following a recent statement by Indiana State Police Superintendent Paul Whitesell indicating he would be in favor of legalizing and taxing marijuana.

Whitesell’s statement, made Nov. 27 during a meeting of the State Budget Committee, referenced three main points in its support of legalization, the first being what Whitesell sees as the drug’s prevailing presence in the state over his 40 years in law enforcement despite strong and consistent attempts to curb its use. In his statement, Whitesell essentially took the stance that marijuana is here, has been here for decades, and isn’t going away anytime soon.

Whitesell also pointed to the recent voter-passed measures in Colorado and Washington that allow adults to legally possess a small amount of marijuana as indications of what he feels is a growing national shift toward support of legalization. Whitesell then referenced what appears to be a growing concern among some state legislators that valuable state prison space is being increasingly filled with non-violent, first-time marijuana offenders, leaving less room for those offenders who’ve commit serious, violent crimes.

So how do local law enforcement officials feel about the issue of legalization?

If you ask Elkhart County Prosecutor Curtis Hill, Whitesell couldn’t be further off base.

“The thing about marijuana is, there’s a growing sheep mentality out there that suggests marijuana isn’t so bad, but the thing they’re missing is that marijuana is the gateway drug to just about every other drug out there,” Hill said. “There’s virtually noone doing drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine right now that didn’t first start with marijuana. So from the standpoint of stemming the tide on the so-called more dangerous drugs, the best, most effective method is keeping people off of those drugs in the first place, and that means keeping them off of marijuana.

“If you’re looking at it from the standpoint that it’s not dangerous, that’s just not true. It’s a gateway drug, clear and simple,” Hill said. “So if you start to legalize marijuana, you’re essentially saying it’s OK for your kids to use marijuana, a mind-altering substance that could ultimately create more hazards on the roadway and in the workplace.”

As for Whitesell’s comments on what he sees as a national shift toward support of legalization, Hill again said he feels Whitesell is out of touch, at least when it comes to a majority of Indiana voters.

“I’ll certainly do what I can to advocate that it not happen in Indiana,” Hill said. “I don’t support that and I don’t think we need to be heading in that direction. There are lots of solid reasons to certainly not go the way of states like Colorado and Washington, and living in the state of Indiana, I don’t believe that the vast majority of voters in Indiana would support something like this.”

Noble County Prosecutor Steven T. Clouse took a similar stance when commenting on Whitesell’s recent statement.

“I believe there is no legitimate reason to legalize marijuana,” Clouse said. “No one can show that the legalization of marijuana will make our community safer or better in any way. Marijuana is a controlled substance, and it does affect a person’s body. If someone ingests marijuana and then operates a vehicle, that’s a problem. It impairs the body in a lot of ways, and it has also been shown to be a gateway drug to other, even more dangerous drugs.”

Taking a slightly less black and white approach than Hill and Clouse in reaction to Whitesell’s comments, Elkhart County Sheriff Brad Rogers noted that while he is not going so far as to advocate legalization of the drug, he is not above considering all options on the table in order to determine the most effective method for dealing with the drug in the future.

“Although only the superintendent can tell you what was on his mind, I believe that law enforcement, in general, is observing that the current social policy on marijuana and drugs in general, is not working,” Rogers said. “Society and law enforcement are frustrated and are looking for solutions. The drug problem is far worse than the general public knows.”

Rogers pointed to an informal survey conducted in the Elkhart County jail recently which revealed approximately 70 percent of inmates are addicted to some type of drug or alcohol.

“Is marijuana use dangerous? Yes. But so are alcoholic beverages, and yet we allow alcoholic beverages to be sold with restrictions,” Rogers said. “Alcohol kills more people than marijuana. This is a complex issue. We need to be careful of what kind of message we are sending to people when we de-criminalize marijuana and what ramifications occur as a result. There is still significant evidence that marijuana is a ‘gateway drug’ and people who use marijuana are likely to move on to more addicting drugs. The mere legalization of marijuana is not a panacea. There will still be issues of addiction, treatment and public safety.”

When asked whether he might be in favor of easing the penalties associated with marijuana possession, rather than outright legalization, Rogers said he personally has been a longtime advocate of alternatives to incarceration for non-violent marijuana users.

“I believe the superintendent’s statement has been a catalyst for discussion on this topic,” Rogers said. “I believe in personal liberties and that government has intruded too far into citizens’ lives. However, when public safety is involved, we need to approach this cautiously and make sure we are not creating more of a problem on the other side of legalization. I have always said that marijuana users (as opposed to dealers) should not go to jail, but rather have alternatives to incarceration. Practically, those alternatives are occurring today. I support these alternatives.”

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