By Tyler Fenwick
The Marion County Prosecutor’s Office will no longer prosecute possession of marijuana cases involving one ounce or less of marijuana when the charge is the only or most serious against an adult, interim Prosecutor Ryan Mears announced Sept. 30.
The prosecution of possession of marijuana cases has declined recently in Marion County. About 80% of such cases have been dismissed so far this year. In an interview with the Recorder, Mears said it just wasn’t worth anyone’s time to go after these cases.
“It’s a huge drain on [Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department] resources,” he said. “Think about how long an officer is out of service while they are following up or responding to a marijuana arrest. It’s a huge drain on the sheriff because then you have those people cycling through the jail.”
It’s also a “traumatic” event for the person who gets arrested, Mears said.
“Whatever they had planned for that day, they are no longer doing,” he said. “Maybe they’re supposed to pick up someone’s kids, maybe they’re supposed to be on their way to work, maybe they’re supposed to meet someone, go get groceries for their family. All of those things are interrupted. And then you have the stress of ‘what’s ultimately going to happen to me?'”
Under state law, possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana — basically equal to one ounce — can be prosecuted as a Level B misdemeanor with up to 180 days in jail and a fine of $1,000.
In a statement, Indianapolis Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) said its collective rank and file “had no prior indication of this decision and we are trying to ascertain if others within the criminal justice community and city county government were aware of this move beforehand.”
The FOP statement also said IMPD Chief Bryan Roach has directed officers to continue to “enforce the laws as proscribed [sic] by the state of Indiana,” though Roach did not say in a statement exactly what his department is doing.
“Discussions with our law enforcement partners will continue following today’s announcement to ensure we are doing all we can to build trust with our neighbors and make Indianapolis a safer city,” he said.
IMPD spokesperson Aliya Wishner said the morning of the announcement was the first time the department heard about the shift in policy.
The change does not apply to trafficking or dealing of marijuana, growing or cultivating marijuana, driving while under the influence of marijuana or public consumption of marijuana. The new policy also doesn’t apply to anyone under the age of 18.
Mears, who was formerly a deputy prosecutor, said he also saw how marijuana charges disproportionately affected people of color.
If someone gets pulled over, he said as an example, and the officer smells marijuana, that person’s life is changed for the worse.
That happens, Mears said, while “knowing that on the other side of town in another neighborhood, there was, candidly, Caucasian people doing the exact same thing, but maybe they don’t get pulled over because there’s not as many police cars in that area.”
According to data compiled by the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization, Black and white Americans report using marijuana at about the same rate, but Black Americans are 3 1/2 times more likely to be arrested for possession.
Mears said he instead wants resources to go toward dealing with violent crime.
“Prosecuting simple possession of marijuana cases isn’t going to make anyone safer,” he said. “Because of that, to me, this is an easy decision to say we’re gonna allocate our resources to our most serious cases.”
Mears, a Democrat, took over as interim county prosecutor after Terry Curry stepped down Sept. 23 due to health issues. He has announced his candidacy to fulfill the remainder of Curry’s term. Tim Moriarty, special counsel to Mayor Joe Hogsett, also announced his candidacy. The Marion County Democratic Party will caucus Oct. 5 to pick Curry’s successor.
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.
This article originally appeared in The Indianapolis Recorder.