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Friday, December 3, 2021

Boyd: The fight for legalized marijuana picking up steam in Indiana

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Sometimes I wonder if we realize how powerful we are. Society is the way it is because we created it to be so, and we can shift paradigms, make changes and create a new society if we so desire. Status quo doesn’t have to remain status quo.

And things do change. At one time gambling was illegal in Indiana. So was selling liquor on Sundays. Now, you can do both.

The fight now has moved toward marijuana. It was only a matter of time before the fight to legalize marijuana came to Indiana. We’re usually behind other parts of the country when it comes to what some would consider a vice. And marijuana, pot, weed or whatever the young kids are calling it nowadays falls squarely into the vice category for many.

The criminalization of marijuana has contributed to disparities in the criminal justice system for Black Hoosiers. According to a report published by the American Civil Liberties Union, “Indiana ranks 24th in the nation for the largest racial disparities in marijuana arrests.” Black Hoosiers are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people. Notice the report didn’t say Black people are more likely to use marijuana, just be arrested for it. The report looked at marijuana possession arrests from 2010 to 2018 and also found marijuana arrests made up 45% of all drug arrests in Indiana.

The report also found “while Marion County’s rate of disparity is below the national average, there seems to be an alarming trend for surrounding counties to have disproportionately high arrests of Black community members. For example, Hancock, Hamilton, Shelby and Boone counties, all donut counties, have a racial disparities rate of greater than 10x.” It’s interesting that the counties with few Black residents have a higher arrest rate. No doubt the War on Drugs and the stereotype that Black people are pathological drug dealers and users play a large role in the arrests in these counties.

A study published by the Hamilton Project found “Black and white Americans sell and use drugs at a similar rate but black Americans are 2.7 times as likely to be arrested for drug-related offenses.”
In 2019, prosecutor Ryan Mears announced a new policy in regard to marijuana possession. His office would no longer prosecute simple marijuana possession. “This decision has kept hundreds of non-violent offenders out of jail, allowed our office to devote more resources to successfully prosecuting violent crime and ensuring justice for victims, and saved taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Mears said in a recent statement.

As you can imagine some in the law enforcement community weren’t happy with Mears’ decision, but Mears made a bold move to stop criminalizing people who use marijuana. I’ve often wondered why certain substances are legal and others aren’t. The opioids epidemic was and is currently fueled by doctors prescribing highly addictive pain medication, but these substances are legal and continue to be so. The difference between legal and illegal is usually because at some point someone realized there’s money to be made. While there are valid moral points to be made against using alcohol, marijuana or any other mind-altering substance, money trumps morality in this country pretty much every time. Also, morality is subjective, and there are a lot of people who are “high” on legal substances.

Money is one of the main reasons Indiana Democrats plan to make legalizing marijuana— medicinal and recreational — part of their 2022 agenda when they return to the Statehouse. Indiana’s missing out on money that surrounding states are getting is basically what Indiana Democratic Party Chairman Mike Schmuhl said recently. It’s an issue that resonates with Hoosiers as many think marijuana should be legal.

I hope Democrats address the racial disparity in marijuana arrests and sentencing in this legislation. Now that it is legal in other states, we’re seeing people, white people in particular, get rich off of selling marijuana while Black people have lost their livelihoods and gained a criminal record for possessing it. As I stated at the beginning of this column, we can shift paradigms and make change when we want. This legislation shouldn’t just be about adding more money into Indiana’s coffers. It should also be about eliminating a disparity and creating an equitable and just system for Black Hoosiers.

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