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GARY — A bid to decriminalize marijuana within city limits fell one vote short this week amid fears of overstepping Indiana's restrictive home rule law and a potential lawsuit. 

"That, in my opinion, is what killed this ordinance," Gary City Council attorney Rinzer Williams told The Times. 

Council members voted 4-4 on Councilwoman at-large Ragen Hatcher's proposed resolution. Councilwoman Lavetta Sparks-Wade, D-6, abstained from voting, causing the measure to fall one vote short. 

Hatcher, who could not be reached for comment, had previously said she wanted to make a "lasting impact" on Gary citizens before she leaves at the end of the year as a state representative for District 3 unopposed in the Nov. 6 general election. 

The ordinance would have reduced the criminal penalty for marijuana possession by lowering the fine to $100 if the person is in possession of 15 grams or less of marijuana, while also eliminating jail time.

The intent, Hatcher has said, was to reduce the chances of young men and women of having this permanently on their criminal record. Far often, the black community is disproportionately arrested for pot possession, she has said.   

Councilwoman Rebecca Wyatt, D-1, who voted yes, agreed. 

"I'm not a big fan of marijuana, but I see it as a institutional racism in the sense that it hits young African American and minority kids and young adults with more impact than it does non-minority people," Wyatt said.

Sparks-Wade said she abstained from voting for the measure, despite "agreeing with the spirit of the law," because Williams advised the city cannot circumvent Indiana statute.*

A state court challenge?

Williams said the proposal was "a glaring attempt to usurp" Indiana's restrictive home rule law that bars local municipalities from reducing penalties outlined in state criminal statute. 

Councilman at-large Herb Smith said he voted against Hatcher's proposal despite his personal belief that local, state and federal governments should be moving toward decriminalization.

Smith said he went to the city's legal team several months ago with a similar, scaled-back proposal. His own proposal was shot down amid concerns Gary could face legal challenges by the state, he said. 

"My thinking is that I was told it was illegal. That you couldn't do it," Smith said. 

Smith suggested Hatcher push the idea as a state rep.

"Don't you think something of this magnitude should be debated there? If she feels strongly enough, she should find some like-minds and take it downstate instead of saddling us with legal burden of a court challenge. We can't afford it," Smith said. 

Hatcher, a Democrat, would face an uphill battle in a GOP-controlled legislature. 

Atlanta, Georgia is one city that lowered the penalty to $75 despite the state of Georgia penalizing people who possess pot with 6 months of jail time and a fine of up to $1,000.

However, Rinzer said Indiana's home rule is more restrictive than most states on what local governments can and cannot do. 

Gary Councilwoman Carolyn Rogers, D-4, said she attended the same recent National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials conference that Hatcher attended, where they learned about how political leaders in other states took small steps to decriminalize the drug in cities where marijuana was still illegal.

Rogers, who voted yes, said she was disappointed in the vote Tuesday night. 

"When a young person is charged, or stopped and arrested, that’s on their record forever. It puts them behind the 8-ball," Rogers said. "Although it's illegal in other states, other cities were able to pass (a local ordinance)."

Wyatt said the ordinance would have sent a clear, strong message to the the state of Indiana and the GOP-controlled state legislature that "this is important to us."

"We felt strongly about this," Wyatt said. 

* Editor's note: This story has been updated to accurate reflect that Councilwoman Lavetta Sparks-Wade abstained from the vote.

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Northlake County Reporter

Lauren covers North Lake County government, breaking news, crime and environmental issues for The Times. She previously worked at The Herald-News in Joliet. She holds a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting.