State leaders discuss proposed changes to alcohol, marijuana laws

Indiana’s Alcohol and Tobacco Commission is understaffed and underfunded, a problem that, if persistent, could be a stumbling block in the state’s path toward possibly legalizing the sale of cold beer in convenience stores.

That’s according to Republican Sen. Ron Alting and former Republican Sen. Beverly Gard, who sat on the legislative commission charged with reviewing Indiana’s alcohol laws. The Alcohol Code Revision Commission, which was led by Gard, was charged with reviewing the retail aspects of the state’s alcohol code, including issues such as Sunday and cold beer sales. But throughout the commission’s work during the fall and winter months, a lack of ATC resources repeatedly proved to be a major inhibitor to changing Indiana’s laws in any way that might expand alcohol sales, the legislators said.

Gard, who spoke alongside Alting as part of a public policy panel discussion at Wednesday’s BGD Legislative Conference, said proposed fee and fine increases in Indiana’s alcohol system that could increase resources for the ATC is the only reason the commission endorsed a draft bill that would allow the sale of alcohol on Sunday afternoons and evenings. The possible expansion of cold beer sales, however, remains unlikely unless the ATC receives even more resources to complete additional regulatory and compliance work, Gard said.

Alting echoed Gard’s call for a boost to the state’s alcohol enforcement agency, but noted the legislature would be open to suggestions for how to provide that boost. The commission’s recommendations call for an increase in permit fees and infraction fines for permittees who violate the law, with half of that money dedicated to an enforcement and administrative fund. Those recommendations will be reviewed during the upcoming legislative session.

Alting, who is chair of the Senate’s public policy committee, also dismissed the notion that Indiana’s alcohol laws are outdated, a common complaint heard in the halls of the Statehouse. When it comes to issues like accessibility to alcohol, the senator said Indiana has some of the best laws in the country.

For example, Hoosier big box stores can sell beer, wine and hard liquor, while Florida Gov. Rick Scott recently vetoed a measure that would have allowed big box stores in his state to sell hard liquor. Thus, onthat issue, Alting said no state has better alcohol laws, so he dismissed the public perception that Indiana is behind the times.

In addition to alcohol code reforms, the panel discussion also featured conversation about Indiana’s marijuana laws, which have become an issue of great public interest in light of proposed legislation to legalize medicinal use of the drug in the Hoosier state.

Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill, who also sat on the panel, maintained his position that as the law is written now, cannabidiol, or CBD, oil remains illegal in Indiana except under limited exceptions for patients with intractable epilepsy. Hill issued an advisory opinion last month offering a similar legal perspective in light of House Enrolled Act 1148, which carved out the epilepsy-related exception.

Sen. Karen Tallian, the fourth panel member who has authored multiple marijuana-related bills over the last 10 years, said she mostly agreed with Hill’s reading of Indiana’s current marijuana laws, but said those laws need to be changed to bring consistency to what the definition of “marijuana” is. The definitions in place now are the source of Hill’s opinion on the legality of CBD oil, yet are inconsistent and need to be refined, she said.

Hill agreed and also added that he hoped science and medical research could continue to advance and find legitimate medicinal uses for the drug. But even so, simply calling marijuana medicine doesn’t make it so, he said.

The panel discussion ended with a tense exchange between Hill and a member of the audience, who asked whether he was breaking the law by purchasing CBD oil to treat his dog’s arthritis. Hill said such a purchase is in violation of Indiana law, even though the man said the oil seemed to be helping his pet. Regardless, the debate over medicinal marijuana is not whether it works, Hill said, but whether it is legal.

Hill’s position is shared by the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, which came out against legalizing medicinal marijuana last month. But lawmakers such as Tallian and Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, said they will support any legalizations of medical use, with Lucas promising to put forth a medical marijuana bill when the Legislature reconvenes on Jan. 3.

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