This past September, Marion county Prosecutor Ryan Mears announced that the county would no longer be prosecuting for simple marijuana possession offenses. One of the main reasons cited for this policy change is the evidence of racial disparity that exists in marijuana possession arrests. Mears argued that these disparities created unfairness and that the time and resources spent prosecuting minor marijuana possession offenses could be used for more serious, violent crimes. A policy change like this in Indiana’s largest county is certainly a step in the right direction, but it’s time for the state as a whole to step up and take it even further.
The reality is that there are harrowing racial disparities present in marijuana possession arrests, and, in a time when states and counties across the country are decriminalizing and legalizing some form of marijuana, it makes no sense to continue to stand by laws that are blatantly unjust. When there’s evidence that a law is targeting and harming specific groups of people, it’s critical that we question the integrity of that law and ask whether or not it is necessary to the preservation of order and society. In the case of marijuana, those answers are clear.
It’s undeniable that marijuana laws disproportionately affect black and minority communities. Nearly 80% of people who are currently in federal prison for drug related offenses are African American or Latino. At the state level, that number is also alarmingly high at almost 60%.
Even with data showing that black people use marijuana at the same rate as their white counterparts, black people are still 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for possession. This disturbing trend of inequality in application of drug laws is evident in every stage of the criminal justice system. Not only are minorities more likely to be stopped and searched in the first place, but they are also twice as likely to be charged with a mandatory minimum sentence from a prosecutor. Research shows that in 2011, of the people that received a mandatory minimum for drug offenses in our country, 38% were Latino and 31% were black.
The fact is that marijuana laws overwhelmingly target black and brown communities. Intentionally or not, states like Indiana are contributing to the inequality that results from restrictive marijuana legislation. States and counties around the nation have already begun to recognize that our marijuana laws are outdated, ineffective and unfair. Not only that, but many states are recognizing and taking advantage of the economic benefits of legalized marijuana. While Indiana is shelling out roughly $30 million a year in taxpayer money on arresting officers, prison officials, crime labs and related expenditures to deal with marijuana cases, states like California are bringing in billions of dollars in revenue for the state.
When you look at all the benefits of marijuana—economic, medical and beyond—and the fact that Hoosiers overwhelming support marijuana legalization, one thing is abundantly clear: it is time for the entire state of Indiana to begin taking the necessary steps to reform our drug laws, beginning with the decriminalization of marijuana—an undertaking that Indiana Senate Democrats have made a top priority this upcoming session.
It is time to move Indiana forward and passing legislation that decriminalizes marijuana in our state is the first step to reforming our drug laws. State Senator Karen Tallian, a long proponent of marijuana legalization and drug law reform, will be introducing a marijuana decriminalization proposal—legislation that the entire caucus will be supporting. If you are one of the many Hoosiers that support drug law reformation in Indiana, begin contacting your state legislators now to tell them to support our efforts to decriminalize marijuana in 2020.