Lake County might ease up on prosecuting marijuana possession

A northwestern Indiana county near Michigan and Illinois is proposing to relax penalties for marijuana possession after the neighboring states legalized pot use.

The Lake County Council endorsed an ordinance Tuesday that would give sheriff’s deputies the discretion to write a $50 to $250 ticket for possessing less than 30 grams of marijuana, instead of taking someone to jail. The ordinance can’t take effect without additional votes early in 2020, and would only apply to unincorporated areas, not cities or towns.

“I don’t want anybody to think we’re advocating for the legalization of marijuana. We’re not,” said county council President Ted Bilski. “We’re trying to be fiscally responsible.”

Bilski said the county doesn’t have enough room in jail to house marijuana offenders.

“How do we not bog down our criminal justice system? How do we not overcrowd our jails?” he said.

The action in Lake County, the state’s second-most populous, comes after Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears announced in October that his office would no longer prosecutor simple marijuana possession cases in Indiana’s largest county. More than one in five Hoosiers live in either Lake or Marion counties.

Lake County borders Illinois, and Michigan is less than an hour away. Recreational marijuana sales are underway in Michigan. Illinois is next on Jan. 1.

Possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana is a misdemeanor with possible jail time and a $1,000 fine, under Indiana law.

Sheriff Oscar Martinez Jr. said he likes the idea of giving officers more flexibility.

“You don’t have to take the time to take them off the road, to book them and all this, and the guy’s going to bond right out,” Martinez said of people caught with marijuana.

But Attorney General Curtis Hill said the county appears to want to get around state law.

“The enactment of criminal law is the province of the state Legislature, not units of local government. The courts have consistently upheld this principle,” Hill said.

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