Hoosiers have embraced medical marijuana legalization, but political leaders remain stuck in a prohibition mindset. (SerrNovik/iStock)
INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana’s Republican statehouse leaders are firmly against taking any steps toward following neighboring states in legalizing cannabis use during the upcoming legislative session.
But they might not be able to avoid talking about it during the 2020 election campaign.
Indiana lawmakers have not seriously debated proposals such as allowing medical marijuana or removing the threat of jail time for possessing small amounts of cannabis, even as recreational sales have won approval in neighboring Michigan and Illinois and medical use is allowed in Ohio.
Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb says he’ll remain opposed as long as the federal government classifies marijuana as a dangerous drug, and the leaders of the GOP-dominated Legislature back him.
Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray of Martinsville said he doesn’t see the value of allowing cannabis use at the same time lawmakers are considering raising the legal age for smoking cigarettes from 18 to 21.
“The idea of then legalizing a different kind of cigarette doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” Bray said. “I don’t think it works very well for the productivity of our citizens in the workplace, so you’re going to see me very hesitant to go there.”
Poll: 80% of Indiana adults favor medical legalization
Advocates of legalization steps say they sense growing support in Indiana—and signs exist for that.
A poll last year by Ball State University’s Bowen Center for Public Affairs found about 80% of Indiana adults favoring medical marijuana use and 40% supportive of legal recreational use, with just 16% backing the total ban.
Since then, the county prosecutor for Indianapolis has stopped pressing criminal charges against adults for possessing about one ounce or less of marijuana and officials in Lake County, which borders Chicago and is the state’s second-most populous county, are considering whether to give sheriff’s deputies the discretion to write a $50 to $250 ticket for small levels of marijuana, instead of taking someone to jail.
Republican state Attorney General Curtis Hill, another opponent of cannabis legalization, denounced both steps and called the Indianapolis decision “a curious strategy to put out a welcome mat for lawbreakers.”
An issue in 2020 elections
Marijuana legalization looms as a likely campaign issue for the 2020 statewide elections.
The three Democrats seeking to challenge Holcomb’s reelection bid—state Sen. Eddie Melton of Gary, former state health commissioner Woody Myers, and tech business executive Josh Owens—all support allowing some level of cannabis use, although Myers opposes recreational sales.
One of the Legislature’s most prominent legal marijuana advocates, Democratic Sen. Karen Tallian of Ogden Dunes, is in the 2020 attorney general’s race and plans to again file a bill to strip possible prison sentences for possession of small marijuana amounts for the legislative session that begins in early January.
“I think anybody who’s running who’s totally against this is running against the wind,” Tallian said. “What I absolutely am fighting for is that we no longer saddle these people with criminal records. That’s always been my very first priority.”
Still a blue-red issue in Indiana
Marijuana legalization is a topic where Democrats can distinguish themselves from Republicans next year and could help them attract supporters who otherwise might not vote, said Charles Taylor, the managing director of Ball State’s Bowen center.
The 2018 Ball State poll found stronger support among Democrats than Republicans for allowing recreational use, but just about one-fifth of Republicans said no marijuana use should be legal.
“It’s not like some of these issues where it is a small majority, and then you look, and one party is way in favor of something and the other is not,” Taylor said. “There is a lot of support across party affiliation.”
Nearly two-thirds of states have legalized marijuana, mainly for medical uses, even though federal health officials issued a new warning in August that smoking the drug is dangerous for adolescents, pregnant women and their developing babies.
Fears over teen use
U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, a former Indiana state health commissioner, said science shows that for teens marijuana carries a risk of affecting brain development, which continues in their 20s. Frequent marijuana use by teenagers is associated with changes in parts of the brain involved with attention, memory, decision-making and motivation.
Health officials have also linked VAPI, or EVALI, the vaping illness that has killed at least 52 people across the country to illegal, unregulated products containing THC, the ingredient that produces a high in marijuana. Some 2,400 hospitalized cases have been reported nationally this year, with some of the highest rates in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin—states where legal, regulated cannabis products are unavailable to those without qualifying medical conditions.
Meanwhile, sales booming in Michigan
Michigan’s handful of licensed adult-use cannabis shops first opened to long lines of customers on Dec. 1 and reported about $1.6 million in sales during the first week. Illinois starts allowing adult-use sales in January.
Indiana lawmakers realize that presents a dilemma regarding products for which state law makes possession of any amount a potential felony with a maximum sentence of three years in prison, although no resolution appears at hand.
“We’re in the process of getting surrounded by states that have either medical or recreational marijuana,” said Bray, the Republican Senate leader. “Whether we want it or not, that’s going to have a very direct impact on the state because people bring it across state lines easily, people driving under the influence of it. We’re going to have to figure out how we are going to react to that. We can’t just be in a vacuum.”