Marion County halts simple marijuana possession prosecutions

Editor’s note: This story has been updated

Simple possession of marijuana will no longer be prosecuted in Indianapolis courts, the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office has announced.

Acting Prosecutor Ryan Mears – who took the office helm after elected Prosecutor Terry Curry resigned last week for health reasons — said Monday the office will no longer file charges against defendants accused of possessing less than 1 ounce, or roughly 30 grams, of marijuana.

“We think this is going to have a number of benefits to the community,” Mears said during a news conference. “One of the first benefits that we believe is out there is we really want law enforcement to prioritize violent crime. That’s where their energy, their effort and their focus should be, and the continued prosecution of possession of marijuana cases takes away from that mission.”

Mears said the decision not to prosecute marijuana possession came after about two years of discussion. The conclusion was there is no nexus between possession and violent crime, so the Class B misdemeanor offense is not a threat to public safety.

In reaching that conclusion, Mears said the prosecutor’s office reviewed data related to solved and unsolved homicides and nonfatal shootings in Indianapolis, as well as victims’ criminal histories.

“We tried to figure out, number one, what were some indicators of why people were involved in violence, and we looked at what was the motivating factor behind some of these crimes, and that’s how we felt comfortable making the conclusion that there is not that strong nexus with public safety,” he said.

The prosecutor’s office has slowly been working toward the policy shift, Mears added. In 2018, 74% of marijuana possession cases were dismissed in Marion County, and that number rose to 81% in 2019.

“If we’re going to dismiss 81% of these cases, it does not make sense to continue with that level of prosecution,” the acting prosecutor said. “When you look at all of the other issues associated with filing a case — when you look at the amount of resources devoted by law enforcement, the amount of resources devoted by the jail, the amount of resources devoted by our office, judicial resources, the Public Defender Agency, all of those people, not to mention the toll that it actually takes on the defendant — what are we achieving by doing that?”

Also central to the decision not to prosecute marijuana possession is a desire to build trust between Indianapolis residents and law enforcement, Mears said. If that trust is established, there could be more sources law enforcement could look to when trying to find the perpetrators of violent crime in the city.

Similarly, Mears said enforcement of possession laws has had a disparate impact on people of color.

“I think too many times we see people that end up in vehicular resist or car chases because they have marijuana inside the vehicle,” he said. “A lot of times people, when they get pulled over when they have marijuana in the car, will look to hide the marijuana or destroy the marijuana or do something to conceal it, which obviously puts the officer on high alert, and they’re approaching the car and maybe thinking, ‘Hey, maybe they’re reaching for a gun,’ as opposed to trying to get rid of the marijuana.”

The 1-ounce threshold comes from a “fine line” in Indiana law between possession for personal use and dealing, Mears said. More serious marijuana offenses involving more than 1 ounce will still be prosecuted, including offenses involving impaired driving and dealing.

“I think what people are going to find is that this is not going to cause Armageddon,” Mears said. “We’re going to be OK here in Marion County. I would guess most people didn’t realize we dismissed 81% of the marijuana cases already.”

Mears noted similar policies have been enacted in Louisville and Cincinnati, while Michigan and Illinois have legalized marijuana use and Ohio has legalized medical marijuana. The Marion County Prosecutor’s Office is the first in Indiana to implement a no-charge policy related to marijuana possession, and Mears said he hopes his office’s decision will elevate the conversation around marijuana legalization statewide.

State Sen. Karen Tallian, an Ogden Dunes Democrat who has been a champion for marijuana decriminalization in the Statehouse, celebrated Mears’ announcement on Monday.

“Dropping these charges is a tremendous step made by Marion County’s interim prosecutor in accomplishing what ultimately needs to be done: decriminalizing possession of marijuana in Indiana,” Tallian said in a statement. “According to the Indiana prosecuting attorney’s information, there were more than 22,000 arrests for marijuana possession last year.

“Let’s stop branding our citizens with a criminal record for doing what is increasingly viewed as normal behavior,” Tallian continued. “Why should Hoosiers be punished for something our neighbors and Americans in 33 other states have freedom to do?”

Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill, however, called the policy a “welcome mat for lawbreakers.”

“I respect and support the fact that prosecutors have absolute discretion in deciding when to file criminal charges and how to allocate their resources,” Hill, the former Elkhart County prosecutor, said in a statement. “Typically, though, prosecutors carefully exercise this discretion on a case-by-case basis rather than proclaiming that in all cases they will ignore a particular state law not to like their liking.

“I am concerned that this proclamation in Marion County will attract to Indianapolis people with a particular interest in communities where drug enforcement is lax,” Hill continued. “It seems to me a curious strategy to put out a welcome mat for lawbreakers in a community already facing challenges related to crime, homelessness and other social problems stemming from drug abuse.”

Indiana has not legalized marijuana for medicinal or recreational use, though the use cannabidiol, or CBD oil, is now permissible in the state.

Mears said the prosecutor’s office consulted with law enforcement before making its decision, but he also said Monday he has not spoken with police chiefs in Marion County. However, he dismissed the notion that implementing the policy would require a “sales job” to law enforcement.

“This really isn’t a ‘sales job,’” Mears said. “This is about doing the right thing. The right thing is not continuing to prosecute these types of cases.”

A spokesman for the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department did not respond to a request for comment about the new MCPO policy.

By freeing up resources, Mears said the MCPO can also double down on second-chance laws and help residents seeking expungements, including expungements for previous convictions of marijuana possession.

Though he has announced his candidacy to permanently fill the prosecutor’s seat, Curry’s replacement will be chosen by the county’s Democratic precinct committee members in October. Mears said he is not concerned about the policy being reversed if he is not selected for the position.

“I would like to think good public policy – which this is – would be able to be applied consistently across the board,” Mears said, “and I think that’s why you see so many other prosecutor’s offices, particularly in urban areas and highly populated areas, declining to prosecute possession of marijuana cases.”

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