Marion County, the home of the 17th largest city in America, Indianapolis, has officially announced that it has effectively decriminalized cannabis. While Indiana is a conservative state that is most likely not going to legalize marijuana entirely anytime soon, the announcement shows a change in direction for the Hoosier state, which is currently sitting in the middle of a handful of legal states.
However, the move to decriminalize is being met with opposition by some law enforcement agencies who are planning on going about business as usual. While cannabis is not legal in the state, there are some rather confusing changes that make its status be thrown somewhat into the air.
What do People Need to Know About The New Policy?
The first thing that people in Marion County should know is at the end of the day, cannabis is illegal.
Even though it may be decriminalized, there are no laws in place stating that it is legal to smoke it or have it on you. If you are caught with it, regardless of how much, it will be taken by police. There is also the possibility that even if you are pulled over or have less than an ounce on you, you may still go to jail.
Despite the ruling, police in Marion County have the right to arrest you and can use cannabis as probable cause to search you and your belongings. The only difference now is that even if you spend a night in jail, in the end you may not be charged with anything. Criminal charges may be brought against you depending on the circumstances in which you are caught with it.
If you are in a car accident, you will face other criminal charges, even if you only have a gram on you. If you are caught selling, even a small amount, you could be subject to distribution charges. If you live in Marion County but are caught with cannabis outside of the county, you will be charged with possession, which is illegal in the rest of the state.
According to Indiana state law, possession of marijuana in an amount less than 30 grams can be a Level B misdemeanor punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a fine of $1,000. Expungement for those with previous charges may also be an option, however, the office has announced that they will not be automatic, meaning you’ll have to do some work on your own.
Facing Policy Backlash
While the new policy is being met with some approval, many of the state’s law enforcement agencies are letting it be known that they will go about business as usual. Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill put out a statement shortly after the ruling, saying “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. It seems to be 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.”
Just outside of Indianapolis still inside Marion County, the officers of Lawrence will effectively disregard the policy for the time being. "Lawrence police officers, like most Indiana law enforcement officers, are able to use their discretion in taking misdemeanor enforcement action, just like the Marion County prosecutor can use prosecutorial discretion when making final charging decisions," Lawrence Deputy Chief Gary Woodruff said in a statement.
"We’re continuing business as usual for the officers patrolling the streets and neighborhoods of Lawrence." With the sudden change in policy, some agencies like the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department have held off and making any firm statements, only commenting that they are continuing to have discussions about what direction they will go in. While people may still be at risk of getting arrested for cannabis possession, it may not ultimately matter as the prosecutor's office is usually where the charges end up.
How Did Indianapolis Get Here?
Late September, the Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry resigned from his position, ceding the role to Ryan Mears, who a week later announced that his office would not be filing charges against certain marijuana crimes.
This new policy, which states that there will not be criminal charges brought against you if you are caught with under an ounce, is not law and not permanent. While the current prosecutor Mears could be in office until 2022, and his challenger for the seat says he will keep the policy in place if elected, there has been push-back from other law enforcement agencies.
The new policy came with little notice to other agencies, which has caused some push-back, however, Mears said that ultimately his decision was a moral issue. “I don't think doing the right thing is a bold thing to do,” he told the IndyStar. “I've been a prosecutor for 12 years, I have the experience of seeing what causes violent crime. And over the course of 12 years, I can tell you, small amounts of marijuana is not our problem.”
"This is not a political decision," he continued. "This is a moral decision. And I have a moral responsibility to make sure everybody is treated fairly under the law. And the continuing enforcement of marijuana laws is unjust and unfair to people of color. So I'm not going to do it."
While the decision may have been sudden, Mears pointed to the declining rate in which his office has gone after marijuana crimes, from 65 percent of crimes being dismissed in 2017 to 81 percent this year, and the fact that the jails are overcrowded and disproportionately with people of color. The office will look into the over 400 pending possession cases and dismiss the ones that meet the new criteria to focus more on violent crime.