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Marion County will no longer prosecute a simple marijuana possession charge, Prosecutor Ryan Mears said. Here’s why.
Dwight Adams, dwight.adams@indystar.com

Simple marijuana possession offenses will no longer be prosecuted in Marion County, Acting Prosecutor Ryan Mears announced Monday morning, a policy that he says will allow the office to focus more on violent crimes, such as murder and sexual assault.

“If it is less than one ounce of marijuana, we are not going to file that charge,” Mears told IndyStar. “And that’s effective today.”

Mears said the decision only covers simple possession. He expects the one-ounce amount to differentiate users from dealers, which his office still plans to prosecute.

“We’re going to continue to prosecute individuals who use marijuana during the course of an accident or if they’re impaired for marijuana, those types of cases,” he said. “And also public consumption. I don’t want people to get the idea that if you walk down to the monument, people are free to light up in public. That’s not what this is about. This is about making sure that we treat everybody fairly.”

What the policy means

Mears said he did not consult with any police chiefs in Marion County prior to the announcement. It’s unclear whether the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department and other law enforcement agencies still plan to arrest people for marijuana possession. The decision, Mears said, would ultimately be up to the departments to make.

“I can’t tell IMPD what to do,” he said. “But the decision to file charges or not, is something that’s up to the discretion of the Marion County prosecutor’s office. And we don’t believe that’s good public policy.”

A message left with IMPD Chief Bryan Roach’s spokeswoman was not immediately returned Monday morning.

At a news conference on Monday morning, and in an interview with IndyStar, Mears stressed that his policy is not an endorsement of marijuana use. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement that criminalizing use of the drug does not address the city’s “terrible violence issue,” Mears said. He believes there’s no direct link between simple possession and violent crime. 

“Let’s get those officers involved in trying to track down the people who are involved in non-fatal shootings and homicides, as opposed to worrying about basic possession of marijuana cases.”

What you should know: About new rules for marijuana possession in Marion County

Mears says this is the first time the Marion County prosecutor’s office has decided to stop prosecuting a drug offense, but the policy is in line with how the office has been treating marijuana cases in the past few years. In 2017, the office dismissed 65% of marijuana possession cases, Mears said. Last year, the number rose to 74%. So far this year, that number is 81%, he said.

Mears believes that criminalizing these offenses “disproportionately impacts people of color,” and is a burden on the jails. 

“It clogs up the court calendars, and it disrupts people’s lives,” he said. “When you get arrested and you get charged, and you have to come Downtown, that’s a stressful situation for anyone. It makes people miss work. They have to pay fees, or pay for an attorney. If we’re going to end up dismissing 81 or 82% of the cases, it does not make sense to file a case.”

There are currently about 393 pending marijuana-related cases (misdemeanors), Mears said. Of those cases, the ones that meet the criteria will be dismissed, he said.

Mears: It’s about fairness, not politics

Mears, who stepped in the role of prosecutor after Terry Curry stepped down last week, said he’s unconcerned with how the announcement will affect his bid to have the position permanently.

“This is not a political decision,” he said. “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.”

The decision was applauded Monday by public safety officials, including Mears’ challenger, Tim Moriarty, an attorney working as special counsel to Mayor Joe Hogsett.

“Truly reforming our county’s criminal justice system will require a holistic approach, and there’s no doubt that the enforcement of marijuana possession charges have created inequity—especially for communities of color,” Moriarty’s campaign said in a statement.

Moriarty said that if elected Marion County prosecutor, he would keep the policy change in place.