Police: Pot is still a priority
When Derek MacIntire was 18 years old, he went to jail for a joint found in his home near Delphi.
He was charged again in college for about 3 grams of marijuana. Soon, his financial aid was revoked and his court costs became overwhelming, spinning him into a blur of frustration and alcoholism.
“I ended up not going back to school,” MacIntire said. “It was a long ordeal.”
Nearly a decade later, MacIntire started his own company — Tippy Hemp, which sells an assortment of hemp-based products — and became a member of the board of directors for Indiana NORML, a nonprofit agency devoted to the legalization of marijuana.
“It’s just a plant,” he said. “We’ve got unsolved drive-bys and murders and burglaries going on.”
As reported by the Journal & Courier, local police departments are cracking down this year on drug use and dealing, including marijuana. In less than two weeks in March, police in Lafayette and West Lafayette arrested 11 people, seizing at least 35 pounds and 50 plants in five investigations.
As public perception begins to shift, however, some Lafayette residents believe police should focus on taking harder drugs, such as heroin or methamphetamine, off the streets. Yet local police chiefs and Tippecanoe County Prosecutor Pat Harrington contend their duty is to enforce Indiana law, which — despite the efforts of some lawmakers — prohibits the use or sale of marijuana.
“It is a controlled substance. It is illegal, it is harmful,” Harrington said. “Whether it’s marijuana or heroin, we file charges based on the facts and the evidence.”
A rise in arrests
Authorities believe marijuana is one piece of a drug epidemic, fueled mostly by heroin, that is wreaking havoc on the community.
Last year, for example, 27 people died of an overdose involving prescription or illegal drugs, Coroner Donna Avolt said in January.
“We know that the heroin and opioid epidemic is a national problem, but it has also had a significant impact on our community,” Lafayette Mayor Tony Roswarski said last week. “The devastating effects of these drugs lead people to make bad decisions that can result in violent crime.”
In the past five years. drug-related arrests in Lafayette slowly declined — from 505 in 2011 to 435 in 2014. In reaction to the influx of drugs and related violence, however, LPD ramped up arrests last year to 682 and expect to surpass that total this year.
Similarly, marijuana-related arrests were on the decline — from 258 in 2011 to 196 in 2014. Last year, however, LPD made 322 marijuana-related arrests — the most in at least the past five years — many of which were driven by community tips.
“People are calling us,” LPD Chief Patrick Flannelly said. “These are the things that are concerning to them, and rightfully so.”
Cassie Corwin, a lifelong Lafayette resident, said she’s less concerned about marijuana than heroin and meth, which have claimed the lives of several high school friends.
A certified nursing assistant at Indiana Veterans’ Home, Corwin said she also has researched the benefits of marijuana for those diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Why waste your time on something that has health benefits,” she said, “when you could be enforcing something that’s killing our community?”
‘A dangerous precedent’
Officials argue, however, that marijuana is just as responsible for violence and other societal problems in the community as other, harder drugs.
“There is a tremendous amount of money being made on the black market with marijuana, and that is protected often by violence,” West Lafayette police Chief Jason Dombkowski said. “That subculture of violence surrounds drug dealing no matter what the drug is.”
A March 5 bust at Williamsburg on the Wabash, an apartment complex in West Lafayette, netted 28 pounds of high-grade marijuana valued at $200,000. Flannelly noted that guns and other drugs are also found frequently during marijuana busts.
From 2011-2015, for example, 25 percent of marijuana-related arrests were accompanied by at least one more criminal charge, such as a weapon violation or battery.
“Rarely do we find marijuana without having significant social problems with it,” Flannelly said. “Some of those issues also involved more significant, or what we would consider more dangerous, drugs like meth, heroin and cocaine.”
While a majority of marijuana users are nonviolent, he estimated about 10 percent to 20 percent use the drug beyond the point of recreation.
“The assumption is everyone that uses marijuana uses it in the same way, for the same reason,” Flannelly said, “and that is a dangerous precedent.”
While authorities point to the significant effect on the community, MacIntire’s fiancee, Samantha Schutz, argued that policing the other 80 percent of nonviolent marijuana users is perhaps more damaging.
“Arresting people and taking them away from their families and their jobs and their ability to be a taxpaying member of society is more destructive to the individual and the community,” she said.
‘Just about surrounded’
Public perception nationwide has shifted as states, including Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska, recently legalized marijuana for recreational use. Closer to home, Illinois and Michigan have approved use for medicinal purposes, according to NORML’s website.
Thanks to federal permission for research purposes, Purdue University is growing the first industrial hemp — a close relative to marijuana without the psychoactive effects — in Indiana since World War II at a small farm south of Lafayette.
“We’re just about surrounded,” Schutz said.
As a result, Dombkowski admitted even Indiana residents have softened their opinions on marijuana. A 2013 survey by Ball State University and WISH-TV found that 52 percent of Hoosiers supported regulating marijuana the same as alcohol.
“Society will dictate laws through the legislature,” he said, “and we’re sworn to uphold those laws.”
Despite efforts of some lawmakers, however, the Indiana General Assembly isn’t reconsidering the current statute.
In January, state Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, introduced a bill that would legalize medical marijuana, although it was quickly “dished off to a subcommittee,” MacIntire said, where it sat untouched until the end of the legislative session.
Similar bills in the past have seen the same fate, Schutz said.
“The past five years in a row, they’ve been on the bottom of the pile,” she said.
Sign of the times?
As state legislators grapple with the issue, Flannelly said it’s still too early recognize the effects on society and law enforcement in western states such as Colorado, where marijuana was legalized in 2012.
“There’s a lot of unknowns,” he said.
Meanwhile, Tippecanoe County judges have softened their stance on the issue, Dombkowski said, directing police to cite and release rather than jail individuals charged with misdemeanor-level marijuana offenses.
“The judges have set those standards of what action they want taken in our county,” he said.
Is that a sign of the times in Tippecanoe County? Flannelly said it’s a small gain for a movement he’s following cautiously.
“Just like a lot of other strategies,” he said, “if you can gain a foothold, then you can start to legitimize it.”