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Medical marijuana and Indiana: What we know about effort to legalize weed

Canada legalized marijuana on Oct. 17th and, in doing so, is professionalizing the marijuana industry. USA TODAY

A person holds a cannabis leaf in a field of marijuana. (Photo: Getty Images)

Medical marijuana and recreational weed are back in the news in the U.S. and Indiana.

Michigan voters this month approved the recreational use of marijuana in their state for adults 21 and older, beginning in early December. (They OK’d medical marijuana in 2008.)

In California, the first state that legalized weed for medical use back in 1996, a new law makes it easier to have past marijuana convictions tossed out, or sentences reduced. And let’s not forget Canada — oh Canada — which legalized the sale of marijuana on Oct. 17.

But how does this issue impact Indiana? We decided to take a closer look.

Is weed legal in Indiana?

No. Possession of marijuana, aka cannabis, is illegal in Indiana.

Possession of up to 30 grams, including for personal use, is a class A misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail, a fine of up to $5,000, or both.

If a person is caught possessing more than 30 grams, or has a prior marijuana conviction (regardless of the amount), then the offense is a class D felony, punishable by up to three years in prison, a fine of up to $10,000, or both. Penalties for the manufacture and distribution of marijuana in Indiana (i.e. drug trafficking) are even higher.

Pair of handcuffs. (Photo: Blake David Taylor/Getty Images)

It is also illegal to drive under the influence of marijuana in Indiana.

If an officer in Indiana suspects a motorist is under impairment by a substance other than alcohol, the driver may be asked to take a blood test. If a driver refuses, the officer can hold him or her to allow enough time to secure a search warrant to obtain a blood sample for testing — even against the motorist’s will. A positive result showing the presence of marijuana will result in the person being summoned to court.

Is medical marijuana legal in Indiana?

No. There have been past legislative efforts to allow medical marijuana in Indiana, but all of those initiatives have failed.

State Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, announces her bid for Indiana governor, backed by friends, at a news conference outside the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis on Tuesday, May 12, 2015. (Photo: Charlie Nye/IndyStar)

Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, filed a bill to legalize medical marijuana at the start of session. That bill never got a hearing, however.

State Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, has tried for years to legalize marijuana including bills to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, but the bills never made it to the Senate floor for a vote.

What is the federal government stance on weed?

Under the federal Controlled Substances Act, cannabis is classified as a Schedule I drug, the same category as heroin and LSD, and it’s considered to be highly addictive and to have no medical value. Thus, doctors may not “prescribe” cannabis for medical use under federal law.

Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in January he would revoke a previous policy called the Cole Memorandum, which said the federal government would not enforce marijuana prohibition on states that had legalized the drug. Sessions’ recent dismissal from the Trump administration, and gains by progressive Democrats in the midterm elections, have been cheered by marijuana proponents.

How do Hoosiers feel about the issue?

More than 100 medical marijuana advocates, joined by veterans, patients and a handful of Indiana lawmakers, attended a town hall hosted by Indiana NORML at the Indiana State Library in August to praise the benefits of medical cannabis.

Some people at the rally spoke to how the substance had helped them overcome pain from chronic diseases and surgeries. Others said medical marijuana is a healthier alternative than opioids.

Veterans from the American Legion and Hoosier Veterans for Medical Cannabis said veterans often overuse opioids when suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Medical marijuana could be “another tool in the toolbox,” said American Legion member Kent Morgan.

In 2017, Indiana NORML posted a billboard on I-70 in the Indianapolis area, touting medical marijuana as a solution to the opioid epidemic. (Photo: Provided by Jack Cain, communications director of NORML)

• A WTHR/HPI Indiana Poll in 2016 found 73 percent surveyed supported medical marijuana. Hoosiers older than 65 favored legalization by 57 percent to 41 percent.

• The American Legion in October 2017 surveyed veterans and caregivers and found 92 percent supported more research into medicinal uses for cannabis for mental and physical conditions and 82 percent supporting legalizing medical marijuana.

• The Old National Bank/Ball State University 2018 Hoosier Survey in November 2018 found 42 percent of Hoosiers said marijuana should be legal only for medicinal use, while 39 percent said marijuana should be legal for personal use. If marijuana remains illegal, only 16 percent said people should go to jail for possessing small amounts.

• And a Gallup poll conducted in October 2018 also revealed 66 percent of Americans, the highest figure on record, support legalizing marijuana.

What do Indiana politicians say about it?

At least two candidates in prominent Indiana races in the midterm election supported the legalization of marijuana.

Libertarian Lucy Brenton, who was running for the open U.S. Senate seat from Indiana, said during the campaign that medical and recreational marijuana should be legalized in Indiana and that states should demand that the federal government “stop harassing peaceful citizens in legal states.”

Libertarian Lucy Brenton speaks during a U.S. Senate Debate against Republican former state Rep. Mike Braun and Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018, in Indianapolis. (Photo: Darron Cummings/AP)

“First, marijuana must be removed as a Schedule I narcotic. No one has ever died from a marijuana overdose, and the evidence is overwhelming that marijuana has medicinal benefits,” Brenton said.

Liz Watson, a Bloomington lawyer who ran as a Democrat for Indiana’s 9th Congressional District, also supported the legalization of marijuana at the federal level.

Brenton and Watson lost their respective races.

Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill has come out strongly against the legalization of marijuana, saying it “poses long-term risks to health, safety, education and employment — especially among those who start young.”

What is the General Assembly doing?

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 33 states — as well as the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico — have passed public medical marijuana programs.

Indiana isn’t one of them and that it isn’t likely to change in the near future. But there are signs that the vehement opposition in the Indiana General Assembly may be softening.

For the first time, a legislative interim study committee met this year after the 2018 session ended to hear testimony and discuss the future of medical marijuana in Indiana. The committee couldn’t decide how to proceed on the issue, however, and couldn’t even come to a consensus on whether to study the issue further.

State Representative Jim Lucas speaks during a medical marijuana press conference held in the Indiana State House on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018. Lucas has proposed to file House Bill 1106 to legalize medical marijuana in Indiana. (Photo: Michelle Pemberton/IndyStar)

Still, it was a watershed moment for those used to a legislature unwilling to even discuss the possibility of legalization.

“This is not the last time that we will be studying the issue,” said John Ruckelshaus, R-Indianapolis. “There will be plenty of legislators and representatives bringing forward legislation this year, I guarantee that.”

Lucas, the Republican state representative who authored a bill for the last session to legalize marijuana, also said he isn’t giving up on the fight.

“The genie is out of the bottle,” he said. “This conversation is going to continue moving forward. I‘m going to make it my mission.”

Lucas, who has taken controversial positions in the past on gun ownership and freedom of the press, even managed to raise eyebrows with his testimony to the legislative study committee on his personal experience with marijuana.

He said he tried as much marijuana as he could on a recent trip to Colorado to see if it was dangerous. Instead, Lucas said he had the “best night sleep I’ve ever had.”

What prominent Hoosiers say about marijuana

“We keep hearing cannabis is a gateway drug. It is a gateway drug. It’s a gateway to a better-quality life.” — state Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour

“Our goal is to save lives. If we can save just one veteran, it is worth it to us, and this (legislation) could save many, many veterans’ lives.” — Rodney Strong, commander of the American Legion Department of Indiana

“We strongly believe both medicinal and recreational marijuana legalization are wrong for Indiana. . Information purporting that marijuana is medicine is based on half-truths and anecdotal evidence. Nearly every review of the science concludes that smoked marijuana is not a medicine.” — Association of Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys

Confiscated marijuana plants. (Photo: Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStar)

“We’re going to have legalization … So it’s a matter of if we’re going to be a leader or follower, and right now we’re a follower.” — Bill Levin, founder of the Indianapolis-based First Church of Cannabis

“Simply legalizing ‘marijuana as medicine’ is just a timid way of tiptoeing into waters that conscientious lawmakers know in their hearts should be avoided. . Let’s hope that day never comes.” — Curtis Hill, Indiana attorney general

“It may get studied, but the Senate isn’t going to talk about it over here this year. . I think our caucus has pretty strongly said we don’t want to legalize it.” — Indiana Senate leader David Long, R-Fort Wayne, in January 2018

IndyStar reporters Kaitlin Lange, Tony Cook, Kellie Hwang and Faith E. Pinho contributed to this story. Call IndyStar digital producer Dwight Adams at 317-444-6532. Follow him on Twitter: @hdwightadams.

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Medical marijuana and the legalization of weed is on a lot of people's minds. Here's where Indiana stands on the issue.

Up In Smoke: A look at Indiana’s path to legalizing marijuana

Indiana State Sen. Karen Tallian remembers the moment that sparked her interest in marijuana legislation.

About a decade ago, Tallian represented a teenager right out of high school who was charged with marijuana possession when a party was busted by the police. The teen took a plea deal, complied with its conditions, and walked away with a criminal record. That conviction followed the young woman.

Four years later, she earned her bachelor’s degree and was student teaching.The superintendent, after finding out about the conviction, told the young woman to find a new career.

“She called me in tears. That is so wrong and so unnecessary,” Tallian said. “If that’s one story, I have 15 more. Those kinds of experiences were really what pushed me to say ‘This is a colossal waste of time and we don’t need to be doing this.’”

Indiana is now surrounded by states that have legalized marijuana. Illinois and Michigan have legalized use of recreational marijuana and Ohio and Kentucky legalized medical use, with Kentucky’s vote just finalized on Feb. 20.

Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, who has authored, co-authored or supported medical or recreational marijuana legalization and/or decriminalization for around a decade, said Indiana legislators need to face the music.

Surrounded on all sides

Michigan and Illinois state law allows personal, recreational use of marijuana. Any possession of marijuana in Indiana is a Class A misdemeanor, and can result in 180 days in jail with a maximum fine of $1,000

Tallian said she’s been slowly chipping away at cannabis restrictions, and isn’t giving up anytime soon.

“I’ve offered every kind of discussion you could possibly think of. (Legislators) all know that they’re going to have to have this conversation …” she said. “The states are falling in line, I certainly hope that we’re not last. They know they have to have this conversation, but they just don’t want to.”

State Rep. Mike Karickhoff, R-Kokomo, said he’s not afraid of the topic. He’s said he’s open-minded but cautious when it comes to changing marijuana legislation.

“Our governor is very resistant to this. I don’t think we should (be next) but I think quite frankly there is a movement toward allowing medicinal marijuana, especially with what we’ve done with CBD oil,” Karickhoff said. “The argument is if we use it medicinally, then we’ll use it recreationally. . But it’s still illegal federally, and Gov. Holcomb has been very firm he’s not going to support any legislation until the federal government legalizes it.”

Both Karickhoff and State Rep. Tony Cook, R-Cicero, supported House Resolution 2 in 2018, “urging the legislative council to assign the topic of medical marijuana to the interim study committee on public health, behavioral health, and human services during the 2018 interim.” The resolution passed unanimously. Karickhoff said he hasn’t seen the results of the study.

Cook, who referred to himself as “old school” said he needs to see data to firm up a stance on legislation.

Additionally, Cook is concerned with the public safety aspect of legalizing. He wants to see solid research on traffic accidents and crime rates in states that have legalized as well.

William Henry, chairman of the Indiana chapter of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (INORMAL), said polls conducted both by INORMAL and state legislators in 2019 indicated that majorities of up to 90% of Hoosiers approve of medical marijuana, and approximately 80% approve of recreational use. Polls that Tallian conducted showed similar results.

“The governor doesn’t dictate anything; the state legislature has the power to override the governor at any time,” he said. “If the state legislature was truly representing their people as these polls are showing, then they would rather do the right thing rather than abide by whatever the governor says.”

Holcomb couldn’t be reached for comment but a list of questions were sent to his press secretary, Rachel Hoffmeyer. Hoffmeyer referred The Kokomo Tribune to excerpts of a recent interview with another news outlet.

“I can’t (support legalization of medical marijuana) at this time because I’ve taken a couple oaths in my life,” said Holcomb. “I’ve raised my hand and sworn to uphold the law, this being one of them. It is illegal. It is a controlled substance. It is illegal per federal administration. The law needs to change there first.”

Law enforcement on legalization

Claims that people who are charged with possession of marijuana sit in jail is, for the most part, false when it comes to Howard County, Assistant Howard County Jail Commander Lt. Justin Christmas said.

“As far as inmates being held (in jail) on charges solely of possession of marijuana, I definitely wouldn’t say there’s a lot,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of inmates who spend a lot of time in jail specifically on possession of marijuana.”

Curious about an exact number of arrests with charges of possession, Christmas started looking at records beginning on Jan. 1. As of Feb. 25, 10 people were arrested for possession of marijuana and other charges. He said an example of those charges included two counts of possession of marijuana and possession of a controlled substance, syringes and paraphernalia.

One man, who was arrested Feb. 23 solely on possession of marijuana, was in jail on Feb. 25. He was the only instance of an arrest for a sole marijuana charge in 2020 to date.

“I’m not a marijuana fan, not to say I’m against anything,” said Christmas. “It’s just not my thing. Obviously, if there are professionals who think that any type of medication is important or significant, I would support that. Who am I to say it’s not?”

As far as personal use, Christmas said he doesn’t have much of an opinion except he chooses not to use marijuana and would prefer his children not use it. He said if the plant was legalized, he’d comply with those laws.

A medicinal herb

Cook said part of the reason he is open to legalizing marijuana for medicinal use is because of family members in the health sector.

“I have three family members who are doctors and the use for chronic pain and for hospice, many times they feel they might prescribe that type of medication for those people,” he said. “I say that gently because it’s still, federally, a crime.”

Dr. Andy Chambers, a psychiatrist at Indiana University Health in Indianapolis, pointed out that THC, tetrahydrocannabinol, a crystalline compound that is the main active ingredient of cannabis, is legal in prescription pill form.

The medication is called Marinol. It is used to treat chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, and was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1985, according to the FDA.

“We’ve been able to prescribe THC for decades,” Chambers said. “I’ve seen it used legitimately. It’s important to know. It’s been around and totally legal and condoned by every state and federal government.”

There is no solid evidence showing that smoking the plant is more effective than the pill. Additionally, only preliminary results show that THC might treat chronic pain, he said.

Studies show that for about a third of chronic pain patients, pain was decreased by about 30% while using marijuana, according to the National Institutes of Health; 26% of patients saw a similar decrease when using a placebo.

“The problem where medical marijuana is legal is those legalizations have been made outside the evidence base. There are lots of doctors who prescribe it around the country,” Chambers said. “For me, I can’t do that because if you do it for that drug, where do you draw the line? Am I going to start recommending people implant marbles in their head because that’s what’s popular?”

When treating psychiatric disorders, the field in which Chambers has worked for about 20 years, he said marijuana is not a good fit for treatment.

“When we’re talking about palliative reasons, like hospice, I’m not concerned. When it is prescribed for PTSD or depression, that concerns me. This is not only not supported, the evidence is not consistent with it.”

Despite this, marijuana is still less dangerous than opiates, amphetamines and benzodiazepines. Chambers argued that this brings a better argument to legalize recreational use than medical.

Chambers said debates surrounding marijuana fall into extremes, that legalizing marijuana or its use as medication is either all good or all bad. Chambers said he’d like people to see both sides of the debate.

In spite of this, Chamber was steadfast that criminalizing marijuana is a damaging practice.

“Criminalizing marijuana is dangerous,” he said. “Arresting and jailing people for marijuana is far more harmful than the effects of marijuana are. So how is that proportionate justice?

“In a strange sort of way, the medical marijuana argument is probably mostly not real,” he said. “But on the other hand, criminalizing the drug when it’s used recreationally is also a problem.”

Decriminalization

INORMAL’s Henry said that merely moving toward decriminalization in Indiana would allow people who are currently benefiting from using marijuana medicinally to not be treated like a criminal. He questioned the rationale of the current laws’ morality.

“Just because a law exists, it does not mean that law is actually moral or right,” he said.

While Henry used civil rights laws as an example to demonstrate his point, Dr. Chambers brought up 1920s prohibition.

“The truth is yes, it can be addictive, and yes, it can be used rarely with no real consequences, kind of like alcohol,” he said. “Which, we realized in the ‘20s we cannot criminalize two-thirds of the population with an amendment. People ignored it, organized crime took off and it’s just not workable.

Surrounded by states that have legalized marijuana, Indiana is grappling with how to handle calls for medicinal and recreational legalization.