Medical Marijuana struggles to gain foothold in Indiana

Medical Marijuana struggles to gain foothold in Indiana

Another legislative session passes without legalization, establishment of state program.

To Indiana medical marijuana supporters, it seems like popular opinion is on their side to see the state create a program to potentially help thousands of Hoosiers and establish a new statewide industry.

Results from the 2022 Hoosier Survey, a poll conducted by Indiana Public Broadcasting and Ball State University’s Bowen Center for Public Affairs, showed more than 85% of the 600 respondents saying marijuana should be legal in some form and only 15% saying it should be illegal.

Whatever public support exists for medical marijuana, however, it didn’t result in the passage of any new bills by the Legislature in 2023 or bring Indiana any closer to joining each of its neighboring states, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio, in establishing programs.

But there were efforts to do so. Rep. Jake Teshka, R-South Bend, authored House Bill 1039, a piece of legislation that sought to legalize and provide a regulatory infrastructure for medical and adult use cannabis after marijuana is removed as a federal Schedule I controlled substance.

The bill was referred to the House’s Public Health Committee, where it quietly died.

Teshka told Indiana Lawyer there were probably several reasons why his bill didn’t pass this session and why the state hasn’t approved a medical marijuana program. He said he’s seen it become more of a generational issue rather than a partisan issue with legislators.

However, Teshka also said there are shifting attitudes on marijuana within both the Legislature and the general public.

“We know Hoosiers support reform of some sort,” he said.

On the Democrat side, Rep. Vanessa Summers, D-Indianapolis, has joined other Indiana House Democrats in calling for the legalization of cannabis in Indiana.

Summers said she’s distributed constituent surveys the last five years with questions regarding medical and adult use marijuana, and the responses have been overwhelmingly in favor of legalization.

Indiana in the minority

Summers noted that every state around Indiana has some form of medical and/or adult use marijuana programs.

A total of 38 states plus the District of Columbia have passed laws legalizing a comprehensive medical marijuana program.

Indiana is not on that list.

In 2017, Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb signed House Enrolled 1148, which allowed patients suffering from treatment-resistant epilepsy to enroll in the state’s medical cannabis program with approval from their neurologist. The program limits patients to cannabidiol preparations with 0.3% or less THC.

When he signed the bill, though, Holcomb was insistent that it was not a step toward legalization.

“This does not put us on a slippery slope to legalizing marijuana,” he said, according to The Associated Press. “Quite the contrary.”

The following year, Holcomb signed Senate Enrolled Act 52, which authorized the production of CBD from in-state industrial hemp cultivators.

But Holcomb has held firm that Indiana should wait until marijuana is federally legalized before considering legalization in the state.

Justin Swanson, a partner with Bose McKinney & Evans LLP and chair of the firm’s Cannabis group, noted the state had its first hearing ever this legislative session on the decriminalization of cannabis.

Given the apparent public support, Swanson said he thinks voters need to be more vocal about their expectations to their legislators on this issue.

With Indiana being one of the last U.S. states that hasn’t established a medical marijuana program, Swanson said the state has had the benefit of seeing how other states have set up their programs.

“We’d be able to cherry pick what we know works and what we know doesn’t work,” he said.

Groups like the National Organization for The Reform of Marijuana Laws’ Indiana chapter say they have seen a shift in public opinion and how legalization is viewed in the Legislature, as well.

Keith Johnson, an Indiana NORML board member, described himself as a conservative who supports cannabis use.

Johnson said historically, conservatives have not been activists when on the issue of legalization.

“There’s just so much stigma attached to it,” he said.

Jack Cain, Indiana NORML’s secretary, said there have been several bills introduced in recent years to the Legislature related to marijuana decriminalization

“The problem is none of those get a hearing,” Cain said, adding that committee chairs say if Holcomb isn’t going to sign any marijuana-related bills, why should they look at it?

Alicia Dougherty, the group’s chairpersonsaid House Bill 1297, authored by Rep. Heath VanNatter, R-Kokomo, represented a historic movement in terms of decriminalization in Indiana because it got a hearing. That bill would have decriminalized possession of two ounces or less of marijuana.

Dougherty also noted Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears has been in the spotlight for announcing in 2019 that he wouldn’t prosecute possession of marijuana under one ounce.

Wanting to be ready

Dougherty said NORML will continue advocating for marijuana legalization in Indiana, both medical and adult use.

She noted the Legislature is looking at legalization of adult use of cannabis as it relates to workforce impacts and teen use this summer in an interim commerce and economic development committee.

That comes on the heels of a 2022 study committee that looked at decriminalization and the potential health benefits and consequences of cannabis use.

Swanson told Indiana Lawyer in September 2022 that he would be presenting data to that committee showing the positive effects of using marijuana as well as polling that shows 79% of Hoosiers support medical use.

Still, Summers said she sees no signs there will be movement any time soon in the Indiana General Assembly to push to legalize medical marijuana, in spite of multiple summer studies and plenty of discussion in recent years.

“The science isn’t going to change. It’s the people who have to change,” she said.

Teshka said he thinks it wouldn’t take long to get a medical marijuana program up and running in the state if the Legislature passes a bill that sets up the needed infrastructure and the governor signs it.

“We believe a program like this could be established within a year,” he said.

His bill, HB 1039, would have established that infrastructure, he said. It would have permitted the use of cannabis by a person at least 21 years of age and people with serious medical conditions as determined by their physician.

The bill also sought to establish an adult use cannabis excise tax, exempting veterans from payment of any sales tax on medical or adult use cannabis, and set up an Indiana cannabis commission.

Hoosier lawmakers from both parties filed a total of 13 cannabis-related bills in the Indiana General Assembly this session, more than in any previous year, according to the Indianapolis Business Journal.

Teshka said he will be filing some sort of marijuana-related bill in the 2024 legislative session.

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