Marion County marijuana possession cases receives policy changes

Marion County will no longer prosecute possession of marijuana cases that are one ounce or less, according to a policy change Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears announced on Sept. 30. In a press release, Mears said that the change applies only when possession is the only or most serious charge against an adult and does not apply to people under the age of 18.

Mears said that before the change, the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office had been looking at how it had handled marijuana cases for the past couple of years. In 2018, the MCPO dismissed 74 percent of its marijuana possession cases, according to Mears. So far in 2019, the number has been at about 81 to 82 percent, he said.

“What I thought to myself was ‘Hey, you know, why am I, as a prosecutor, filing these cases if I ultimately know that there’s an 82 percent chance it’s gonna get dismissed?’” Mears said. “Then we took a little closer look at the numbers and who we were actually prosecuting for possession of marijuana cases and who was getting arrested…. I could not demonstrate or find a clear nexus to violence.”

After looking at the number of possession cases, Mears said that he noticed that the number of arrests and prosecutions for marijuana possession disproportionately affected people of color. He said that he thought it would be a better use of resources for the MCPO and the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department to focus on violent crime, rather than marijuana possession cases.

Mears said that since the policy change, the MCPO has dismissed about 240 possession of marijuana cases. The prosecutor’s office also has turned down 25 to 30 case referrals from law enforcement agencies following the policy change, he said.

Before the change, IMPD already had left the handling of marijuana possessions in the hands of officers, according to Mears. He said that in 2018, when people were arrested on only one charge of possession of marijuana, IMPD arrested 200 people.

“There’s 950,000 people in Marion County. I feel pretty confident and steady that there’s probably more than 200 people who possessed marijuana over the course of 2018,” Mears said. “… I think the police were already kind of acting on their own in a way [that’s] consistent with the policy that we announced.”

Mears said that there are exceptions to the new policy. He said if someone is caught in the act of distributing drugs, driving impaired under the influence of marijuana and/or using marijuana in public, the MCPO will still prosecute those cases. 

Mears said that he hopes his decision will eventually spread to neighboring counties and across the state of Indiana. 

“Ultimately, our job at the prosecutor’s office is trying to make this city a safe place…” Mears said. “Prosecuting marijuana cases was not making Marion County any safer, and we were devoting way too many resources to those types of cases.” 

University of Indianapolis Assistant Professor of History and Political Science Laura Merrifeld Wilson said that she does not think the policy change will lead to major changes across Indiana. While other counties could draft a similar policy to Marion County’s, Marion County is much more liberal than most of Indiana, she said.

“It could spread if people find that it’s successful,” Wilson said. “If they say, ‘Look at what Marion County’s doing, we could do this too, and we’d also enjoy these kinds of successes,’ [then] they have that option and ability. They may be waiting it out to see what comes out of it.”

There are a number of consequences resulting from a marijuana conviction, ranging from eligibility for student loans and government subsidized housing, for example, according to Mears. He said that he considers these consequences very important factors in his decision. 

Mears said that because a lot of people have been convicted of marijuana possession, the MCPO is going to help remove those convictions from people’s criminal records. Two of the issues that the office will focus on are traffic court issues, such as helping people get their licenses back, and assisting them with reintroduction into the community.

“[We want to] make sure we help people get their license[s] back [and] make sure they get insured…” Mears said. “I’ve actually reassigned people who are working on these marijuana cases. They’re now helping out with expungements, and it’s not just limited to marijuana cases.”

Mears said that it’s a question of whether or not the MCPO’s time would be better spent prosecuting marijuana cases or helping people get their licenses and insurance back. Doing this, he said, would help those people get back on their feet, be reintroduced into their communities and rejoin society.

The legalization of marijuana is different from Marion County’s new policy, Wilson said. While this issue has gotten attention nationally, she said, Indiana is not yet having a conversation about legalization.