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NAACP rallies support for stronger hate crimes legislation at Indiana Statehouse

Members of the NAACP, along with state legislators, ministers and other Black leaders, gathered Feb. 25 at the Indiana Statehouse in the south atrium — just outside Gov. Eric Holcomb's office — to show their support for hate crimes legislation and express disappointment in a bill the Indiana Senate weakened before passing.

In its original form, Senate Bill 12 would have protected individuals and groups targeted for their race, religion, gender identity and other classifications, but the Senate approved an amendment Feb. 19 that stripped away that language. The Senate then passed the bill Feb. 21. Indiana is one of five states without a hate crimes law.

"The Indiana Senate missed an opportunity to correct a wrong," Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, told those in attendance.

Like most who spoke to the room of supporters, Melton — a member of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus — called for the House of Representatives to add the list of protected people back into the bill. If that happens, the bill would then go to a joint House and Senate committee to resolve the differences. Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington Bureau and senior vice president for advocacy and policy, said those specific protected groups of people are important because hate crimes are different from other crimes.

"They choose their victims based on who you are, how you look and what they think you believe," he said.

Shelton said he met with Holcomb's staff and believes the Republican governor is "focused" on passing hate crimes legislation. Holcomb, who has repeatedly voiced his support for such legislation, said in a statement after the Senate amended SB 12 he would continue to fight for the right

ultimate outcome for our state and citizens this year so we're not right back here in the same place next year."

Rep. Gregory Porter, D-Indianapolis, also a member of the IBLC, will be one of those legislators trying to restructure the bill when it reaches the House. Porter told attendees his constituents see this weakened hate crimes bill as just the latest example of Indiana being unfair. "Indiana has a saying: 'A state that works,'" Porter said. "I'm often asked, 'A state that works for who?'"

The fight for a hate crimes law has taken up the better part of two decades in the state legislature, which has consistently found ways to either kill such legislation from moving forward, or has taken so much out of the bill that it's rendered virtually useless. John Girton, pastor of Christ Missionary Baptist Church who testified for the original bill in front of a Senate committee and was at the Statehouse gathering, said this process feels familiar to what's happened in the past.

"Same old story," he said. "Those who are advocating for an unconstitutional, unenforceable bill such as this are letting us know that they don't care about our communities. They don't care about our safety. They don't care about our happiness. They don't care about our lives. They don't care about our voice. They don't care about our children."

Girton called SB 12 "unconstitutional" and "unenforceable" because Georgia used to have a similar law on its books that the state Supreme Court struck down in 2004 because it was too vague.

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

Sports gambling inches closer to reality

Despite it being technically illegal in Indiana, sports gambling remains a popular pastime for fans. However, on Feb. 26 the Indiana Senate passed Senate Bill 552, which legalizes sports gambling, putting it one step closer to becoming another form of state-approved gaming. According to State Sen. John Ford, Hoosiers illegally gamble $300 million every year. A decision by the Supreme Court in May 2018 gave states the ability to legalize sports gambling. Local lawmakers jumped at the chance to carve into the illegal market.

If it passes both chambers, SB 552 ill legalize sports gambling, including online and mobile gambling, in the entire state, as long as it's done through an approved casino. According to Ali Bartlett Miranda, a lawyer ho specializes in gambling law, the accessibility of legal mobile sports gambling will help attract commerce away from black market sources. "Some have said that it's the largest piece of gaming legislation that has moved though the legislature since we legalized casino gaming in Indiana," Miranda said.

Legalization of sports gambling could lead to new commerce and funds for the state. The Indiana Gaming Commission, a neutral organization that neither supports nor opposes the implementation of sports gambling, published the document, "Presentation Notes, Eilers & Krejcik Indiana Sports Wagering Report Indiana Gaming Commission," which suggested sports gambling could initially generate $225 million in total revenue, with online gambling comprising about half the funds. The gambling taxes could net the state $38 million per year.

"I think Indiana is a state where we have done very well fiscally, Miranda said. "We are great stewards of our state dollars. While this is not going to be a huge revenue impact, people appreciate every dollar of revenue going that's coming into the state budget."

The chances of the legislators passing SB 552 are strong. Ford noted when the bill was in committee it passed with 10 in favor and zero opposed.

"I would say right now that legislation, at least the sports betting part of that bill, has been very well received," Miranda said. "I think that the legislators see the value in legislating sports betting."

There also seems to be little resistance to sports gambling outside the statehouse. Christina Gray, executive director of the Indiana Council on Problem Gambling, said the organization is neutral regarding bills legalizing different forms of gambling. However, Gray did add she would like to see funding for the treatment of problem gamblers in the conversation about gambling laws.

"Over the past 25 years Indiana has legalized many different forms of gambling but have failed to increase the amount of funds to treat problem gamblers," Gray said via email. "Our hope is to receive more funds to help treat those who have a gambling problem, train treatment providers on problem gambling and educate the public to help in the prevention of problem gambling."

Contact staff writer Ben Lashar at 317-762-7848. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminLashar.

Hoosiers debate the future of marijuana

Currently, medical marijuana is legal in 33 states, and Indiana's neighbors seem to be adopting looser attitudes about marijuana. Kentucky is considering legalizing medical marijuana, Ohio allows medical use, Illinois will likely adopt recreational use and Michigan already has. With so many other states legalizing cannabis, Hoosiers are fiercely debating the drug's future in Indiana.

However, the debate does not resemble a Republican versus Democrat squabble. State Rep. Jim Lucas, a Republican supporting marijuana reform, said over 50 percent of Republicans now support legalization along with over 80 percent of Democrats. State senators and representatives on both sides of the aisle have proposed bills this session loosening marijuana laws.

Lucas is unsure of the bills' future because many Hoosier leaders doubt legalization will help the state. Gov. Eric Holcomb, Attorney General Curtis Hill, the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council and the Indy Chamber of Commerce have all come out against legalization. Kevin Brinegar, president and CEO of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, doubts legalization is in Indiana's immediate future because of both conversations with legislators and a lack of movement behind current pro-marijuana bills.

"This is an issue that's not going away," Lucas said. "And we're going to be forced to deal with it sooner or later, and I would much rather deal with it sooner."

In favor of legalizing

Marijuana advocates argue legalization will curve excessive punishments for drug crimes. According to David Phipps, communications director for the nonprofit cannabis advocacy group Indiana NORML, Indiana punishes cannabis users harshly. A first-time offender can receive a year and a half in prison and be fined up to $3,000. The jail time can be particularly harm-

ful for families as offending youth miss school and may now have a record for the rest of their lives, and parents who serve jail time cannot provide for their children.

"When we're separating children from their parents, think what that would do to that child," Phipps said. "We're traumatizing children every day because a few lawmakers disagree with cannabis use. This is just as absurd as if we to separate families over a father or mother drinking a beer."

Legalization of marijuana could benefit many people including the elderly and those suffering from chronic pain, Phipps said. Jeff Staker, founder of Hoosier Veterans for Medical Cannabis, noted marijuana use helps veterans suffering from chronic pain or PTSD. In addition, using marijuana instead of opioids could eliminate a reliance on opioids, he added.

According to Lucas, states that legalize marijuana see a 25 percent reduction in opioid-related deaths, making marijuana a potentially helpful tool to combat the opioids crisis.

"Unlike many prescription medications, you cannot die from an overdose on cannabis," Lucas said. That makes it very safe, and dosages are very easy to figure out."

Against legalizing

Many critics of marijuana doubt its medical benefit because the FDA has not approved it. Randy Miller, executive director of Drug Free Marion County, concedes that cannabidiol (CBD) oil, a marijuana extract, is legal in Indiana while not approved by the FDA, but he also adds that CBD oil contains less tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) than other forms of marijuana and is therefore safer.

Miller also worries that either medical or recreational legalization could lead to more children using marijuana, especially because the perception of marijuana among youth is troubling. Around 20 percent of fifth graders in Marion County use marijuana regularly, according to Miller.

"We've seen reports indicating that youth, because they hear marijuana is not only not dangerous but a medicine, report driving or riding under the influence of marijuana, and they don't understand that's dangerous," Miller said.

Critics also are not convinced marijuana helps adults. Brinegar noted a study that points to higher rates of mental illness and violent behavior among those who use marijuana 300 or more times a year. Miller also noted anecdotal evidence suggests marijuana negatively impacts motivation and motor skills.

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce worries what those effects will mean for business. Medical marijuana usage can become recreational marijuana use, and that might lead to a less efficient workforce, Brinegar noted.

"We've seen data from states such as Colorado that have recreational marijuana that have seen considerable increases in workplace injuries, absenteeism, traffic accidents [and] failed drug tests because even though it's legal at the state level, it's sill illegal at the federal level," Brinegar said.

Contact staff writer Ben Lashar at 317-762-7848. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminLashar.