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HOWEY: There’s a whiff of change (and reefer) in the air

Republicans in the U.S. House introduced legislation on Monday that would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level.

INDIANAPOLIS — What do Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, industrialist Charles Koch, former House Speaker John Boehner, Sarah Palin and Snoop Dogg have in common?

They all back marijuana reforms.

The rapper Dogg is no surprise, having built his career on a foundation of bongs and kush. But Justice Thomas? He recently wrote, "A prohibition on intrastate use or cultivation of marijuana may no longer be necessary or proper to support the federal government's piecemeal approach. Federal policies of the past 16 years have greatly undermined its reasoning. The federal government's current approach is a half-in, half-out regime that simultaneously tolerates and forbids local use of marijuana.”

And Speaker Boehner? "My thinking on cannabis has evolved," he said. "I’m convinced de-scheduling the drug is needed so we can do research, help our veterans, and reverse the opioid epidemic ravaging our communities.”

They've come a long way since iconic conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr. smoked pot on his sailboat beyond U.S. territorial limits in 1965, advocating in 1971 decriminalization (but not legalization). Asked about the episode, he told the New York Times, "Yes. It was on my boat, outside the three‐mile limit. I'm a law‐and‐ order advocate, you know. To tell the truth, marijuana didn't do a thing for me.”

Koch, whose Americans for Prosperity group has backed a generation of conservative congressional and state legislative candidates, has joined Mr. Dogg and criminal justice reform advocate Weldon Angelos to form the Cannabis Freedom Alliance.

So beyond the whiff of weed, I discovered at a Temptations concert at Conner Prairie this summer, there is definitely change in the air.

RELATED: Indiana Democrats pushing to legalize marijuana

I've been writing politics for more than 40 years and I've never had a U.S. Senate candidate call me up and tell me he's smoked marijuana. But that's what happened one morning when Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., a Democrat, said he smoked marijuana at a Grateful Dead concert at Wrigley Field this past summer. "I was in Chicago where it's legal," McDermott said on his Left of Center podcast. "I had a ride there and from. I was in a state where it's legal. I did. What's the big deal?"

McDermott, who is seeking to challenge U.S. Sen. Todd Young, R-Indiana, added, "If I'm elected to the U.S. Senate, I'm going to vote to decriminalize. I'm going to vote to legalize."

Back in the day if a politician acknowledged smokin' the demon weed, he didn't inhale (Bill Clinton) or did it just once (Evan Bayh).

Now Indiana Democrats have jumped on to the legalization bandwagon, with Chairman Mike Schmuhl saying, "This is a really popular issue and I think people want to see this get done. If Democrats can take the lead on it, even being in the minority, that’s great, and we’re going to try to get as many Republicans on our side as we do it. Hoosiers have seen the impact that recreational and medicinal cannabis use has made on the states around us, and not only are they contributing to neighboring states’ economies, Indiana is now on the verge of losing out altogether.”

RELATED: Veteran weighs in on renewed push to legalize medical marijuana in Indiana

Hoosiers and Americans have supported marijuana reforms for years now. In October 2016, a Howey Politics/WTHR-TV poll found more than 70% of Hoosiers, including 58% of Republicans, favored marijuana reforms. Gallup has been monitoring the issue since 1969 when 12% favored legalization, moving to 50% in 2013 to 68% this year as 36 states (including Illinois and Michigan) either decriminalizing or legalizing, with Hoosiers making up to 60% of their clientele.

Beyond public opinion, some Hoosier prosecutors appear to be lining up behind Justice Thomas. Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears is no longer charging in possession cases, saying, “In Indiana, the continued criminalization of marijuana is an inadequacy in our criminal justice system that increases racial disparities and limits economic opportunities for our state."

In Whitley County, former Purdue and Portland Trail Blazers basketball star Caleb Swanigan was arrested with 3.4 pounds of marijuana, drug paraphernalia and cash inside his vehicle. He was sentenced to a 180-day suspended sentence with two days served.

Republicans in the U.S. House introduced legislation on Monday that would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level, correcting Federal Bureau of Narcotics commissioner Harry Anslinger’s historic overreach, scheduling marijuana in the same category with heroin and morphine. That 1938 scheduling was opposed by the American Medical Association and in a study commissioned by New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, systemically debunked Anslinger’s rationale that marijuana caused insanity.

U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace, R-South Carolina, said she has five Republican co-sponsors, which could be enough to pass the House.

Hoosier Democrats may be on to something. Back in the 1980s, General Assembly Republicans consistently blocked a state lottery. In 1986, Republican House Speaker J. Roberts Dailey was upset and two years later, a referendum on the lottery passed...with 63% of the vote. It just goes to show lawmakers are often the last ones to figure out a viable trend or summon courage to correct this prohibition.

If Democrats can isolate a recalcitrant legislative leader or committee chair and defeat him, that could do wonders on the policy front. Nothing captures a legislator’s attention like an election upset.

The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.

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