Senate Democrats push end to jail for minor marijuana possession

No more jail time. That’s what some Indiana Senate Democrats repeatedly said Thursday as they advocated for legislation aimed at limiting the number of individuals arrested for possession of marijuana.

The bills, however, may not get a hearing in the Indiana General Assembly this year.

“In 2018, there were more than 22,000 arrests yearly for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Which makes it the second-most arrested crime in the state. In 2019 the numbers got higher. That’s why I keep filing these bills,” said Senate Democratic Chairwoman Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes.

Tallian’s Senate Bill 114 would reduce the penalty for the possession of less than one ounce of marijuana to an infraction for a first offense.

“We are well behind the times in the State of Indiana when it comes to cannabis,” Tallian said. “It’s time to allow debate and public input on this matter, and it is time we catch up with our neighbors.” Tallian also has announced her candidacy for the Democratic nomination in the Indiana Attorney General race this year.

Illinois and Michigan both recently legalized the sale of recreational marijuana, and Ohio permits sales of medical marijuana. Lawmakers in Kentucky are studying the possibility of legalization. Three-fifths of states now have legalized marijuana for either recreational or medicinal use.

For his part, Senator Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, advocated the proposal of SB 86, which provides a defense for the possession of less than two ounces of marijuana for people who have a valid medical marijuana card from another state.

“Our marijuana laws are unjust, ineffective and outdated, and states and cities across the nation are increasingly coming to this conclusion,” Taylor said. “It’s time Indiana did the same. My bill would ensure that individuals with valid medicinal marijuana cards from other states are not thrown in jail here.”

Taylor stated that neither of the bills would legalize marijuana, but rather keep people from being placed in jail for having small amounts of pot. Taylor additionally praised a September 2019 decision from the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office to no longer prosecute simple marijuana possession, calling the decision a “step in the right direction.” Lake County also is considering relaxing marijuana prosecutions.

“What we should not be doing is backtracking in those types of policies,” he said.

However, the senator shared his concerns regarding SB 436, which would give the Indiana Attorney General the power to prosecute marijuana cases and other crimes in counties where local prosecutors have chosen not to prosecute.

“This means that the state of Indiana would trample on the rights of local government and local prosecutors’ decision-making power,” Taylor said. He added that Indianapolis’ new policy on small amounts of marijuana possession is now in jeopardy. Republican Attorney General Curtis Hill has been highly critical of moves to halt marijuana prosecutions.

“The real issue is marijuana and the disproportionate impact our current marijuana policies have on people of color. This is a thinly veiled effort to avoid that discussion,” Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears said in a statement.

The Senate Corrections and Criminal Law Committee is scheduled to hear SB 436 on January 28.

Both Tallian’s and Taylor’s marijuana bills were assigned to the same committee but have not been scheduled for a hearings. That day is the final day that Senate bills may be heard in Senate committees.

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