Indiana GOP legislator: Decriminalizing syringe possession could be topic in 2020 session

Bloomington resident Jean Capler stood at the public podium in city hall last Saturday morning to ask: “Is there ever any talk about decriminalizing syringe possession?”

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Jean Capler at the March 2, 2019 League of Women Voters legislative update held at Bloomington city hall. (screenshot from CATS broadcast)

The occasion for Capler’s question was the regular in-session monthly legislative update hosted by the local League of Women Voters. On hand to field questions from Capler and a group of about 30 other people were state Sen. Mark Stoops (D-40) and Rep. Matt Pierce (D-61).

Stoops and Pierce indicated they agreed with Capler’s implicit point: Syringe possession, currently a Level 6 felony in Indiana, should be decriminalized. The two Democratic Party lawmakers, who represent parts of Monroe County, drew out the tension between two statutes on the Indiana books. One existing law (IC 16-42-19-18) makes possession of a syringe illegal; the other (IC 16-41-7.5) allows local authorities to operate syringe exchange programs.

“When you do the needle exchanges,” Pierce said, “the only reason why you can do them is that the local prosecutor will essentially agree not to enforce the law for people participating in that program.”

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Rep. Matt Pierce (D-61)  at the March 2, 2019 League of Women Voters legislative update held at Bloomington city hall. (Dave Askins/Beacon)

About decriminalization, Pierce added, “I’ve brought that up to see if I could get some support.”

The needed support would have to include a contingent of Republicans, whose majority in both chambers of the Indiana General Assembly is more than 2-to-1.

At least one of those Republicans is on board—Sen. James Merritt (R-31), who represents a district covering the northeast corner of Marion County and the southwest corner of Hamilton County.

In a recent interview, Merritt told the Beacon that decriminalizing the possession of a syringe could be the approach the legislature needs to take. “Since we have…allowed local governments to have needle exchanges,” he said, “it’s probably time that we look at decriminalizing the actual possession of a syringe being a criminal act.”

But it won’t happen this session. And if a bill is introduced next year to repeal the statute that makes syringe possession a felony, Merritt doesn’t think he’ll be the senator who sponsors it. Referring to his candidacy for the top city government job in the state’s capital, Merritt said about the 2020 session, “I’m going to be mayor of Indianapolis next year.”

“Somebody will bring it forward,” Merritt said. “When you strip everything away, it’s about stigma of drug use. It’s about drug addition being an illness, not a character flaw. What we’re trying to do is…reach people to help them. We’re also trying to reach the people who are trying to make them sick with drug dealing. … I think drug dealers ought to go to jail.”

Merritt told the Beacon he thinks there’ll be bipartisan support for a bill decriminalizing syringe possession if one is brought forward next year.

Sen. Jim Merritt (R-31) (Wikipedia)

So far in this year’s legislative session, Indiana lawmakers have let die two different bills—both sponsored by Merritt—that could have addressed the tension between laws that criminalize syringe possession and that allow the operation of syringe exchange programs.

Both bills introduced in the Senate this session would have  given a syringe holder a possible defense against the crime of having a needle. The defense that’s described by one bill (SB 011) involved registering in a needle exchange program. The second bill (SB 159) described a defense based on alerting law enforcement to the presence of a needle, before a search is conducted.

Neither bill made it out of committee for a floor vote this session.

Merritt told the Beacon that the two now-demised bills didn’t die due to any particular controversy. He had focused instead on trying to get hearings for some of his other bills that could help address non-injectable drug abuse. Opioids and methamphetamine are more of a crisis than heroin right now, he said.

One of Merritt’s other bills (SB 146) would have required, among other things, that prescribers get three hours of continuing education every two years on the prescribing of opioid medication in order to continue issuing prescriptions for opioid medication. That bill foundered on the same deadline as the bills providing defenses for needle possession. After being referred to a committee, it didn’t receive a vote on the Senate floor by Feb. 26, which was the deadline, according to a Senate standing rule.

Another of Merritt’s drug-addiction-related bills (SB 33) was co-authored by Stoops and received unanimous support in a mid-February Senate floor vote. It has been referred to the House Committee on Public Health. The bill would establish certification and a grant program for comprehensive addiction recovery centers. The money for the new “comprehensive addiction recovery center fund” would come from allocations by the state legislature, federal grants, and private donations.

If the Senate bill is passed, it might tie into part of Jean Capler’s current campaign platform for Bloomington city council. She’s competing in the Democratic Party’s May 7 primary race with five other candidates for three at-large seats on the council.

Capler wants to dedicate a portion of the city budget to a “Healthy Recovery” fund to support people in recovery. For Capler, that means more than just treatment for addiction. It includes a set of wraparound services to support people after they’re free of addiction.

Capler and the two legislators at Saturday’s update said people worry when they see needles lying around. Bloomington’s uReport system has logged around a dozen complaints about needles since 2016.  Capler’s  council campaign platform includes establishing containers for needles downtown and in restrooms of public parks.

Capler told the Beacon she asks the question about decriminalization of syringe possession every chance she gets. A practical decriminalization of syringe possession is also part of her city council campaign. From her campaign website: “Until the state takes this step, it should be the policy of our local police to not routinely charge individuals who are in possession of a syringe.”

Capler said she knows that enacting such a policy would require collaboration with the mayor and chief of police—because the city council does not have the power to direct the police chief’s actions.

The next legislative update hosted by the League of Women voters will be Saturday, April 6, from 9:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. in the Council Chambers at Bloomington’s city hall, 401 N. Morton St.