Legislators in the Indiana Statehouse haven’t seen much traction in their efforts to convince the General Assembly that legalizing medical marijuana would benefit Hoosiers.
However, optimism was sparked when Indiana legalized cannabidiol, also known as CBD oil, earlier this year by large majorities in both chambers. With that door opened, legislators such as Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, are hopeful that the success of CBD oil legalization will positively impact their chances of getting a hearing on medical marijuana bills filed during the upcoming legislative session.
“Every year we get more bills filed and more people expressing their support,” said Tallian, who plans to introduce three marijuana bills. “It’s about time.”
Tallian has filed several bills on the issue of marijuana in the past eight years with little progress. But with the way things are looking across the country, she said she thinks it’s only a matter of time before Indiana joins states that have legalized marijuana.
“When I first started to do this, I had a lot of people say to me, ‘Oh be careful! You’re going to get killed, people won’t like it,’” Tallian said. “But you know what? All of those people were wrong. The public is way ahead of the legislators on this, and it’s becoming more and more clear nationally.”
Currently, 32 states have legalized marijuana for medicinal use. After the 2018 election, Michigan became the first Midwestern state to legalize marijuana for recreational use. That leaves Indiana nearly landlocked between neighboring states Illinois, Michigan and Ohio, which all legalized marijuana for either medicinal or recreational use.
Sen. Mark Stoops, D-Bloomington, hopes to see the drug legalized in Indiana, as well. However, it won’t happen, Stoops said, until Kentucky makes a move.
“If that was the case, we’d be surrounded by states that have implemented medical marijuana rights,” he said. “If Kentucky approves medical marijuana, which they probably will this year, then we’ll be an outlier in our area.”
In October, an interim study committee tasked with exploring legalization heard several hours of testimony from medical professionals, legislators and citizens on both sides of the issue. At its close, Stoops unsuccessfully moved to create a state agency that would regulate marijuana in all capacities. No recommendations were made to address the issue going forward, but Tallian said having a study committee hearing at all was a step in the right direction.
“It was the first time that they allowed a hearing on medical marijuana,” she said. “The same people who allowed it this year have banned it in the past.”
Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, a strong proponent of medical marijuana, said he thinks the issue will be one of the most heavily discussed topics during the 2019 session, despite pushback from opponents. Lucas plans to draft legislation aimed at decriminalizing marijuana for medical use in an attempt to break down what he calls a “decades-long entrenched stigma” attached to cannabis.
“I think this will probably be, other than the budget, one of the single biggest topics, if not the biggest,” he said.
The legislator testified in October that he had a positive experience after trying cannabis during a visit to Colorado, where recreational marijuana is legal.
“The door is open, and the genie is out of the bottle,” Lucas said. “And I will continue to put more and more pressure every day on the Indiana Legislature until we decriminalize cannabis.”
Tallian, Stoops and Lucas all support the idea of creating a regulatory framework for the drug that would encompass licenses and permits, identification cards for patients and providers, monitoring, quality control, product labels, processing and distribution. If it has anything to do with cannabis, Tallian said, the agency would oversee it — including CBD oil.
CBD vs. THC
CBD oil is known for its non-psychoactive medical benefits, using a very low content of THC, the compound found in cannabis that leads to the intoxicating effects of a high. Legally, CBD oil cannot have a concentration of THC that is higher than 0.3 percent. Medical marijuana, on the other hand, has a much higher concentration.
Although he co-authored SEA 52, which legalized CBD oil in Indiana, Sen. Jim Tomes, R-Wadesville, said he will not support medical marijuana. Tomes said he worries about how the drug could potentially be abused if legalized.
“I have no doubt that some applications of that plant can provide some medical relief for certain illnesses and medical conditions,” Tomes said. “The problem with marijuana though, unlike CBD and the hemp plant, is that there’s no way possible to control the abuse of this one. That’s the drawback for me.”
Tomes said he thinks Indiana should wait a little longer to see how CBD oil impacts Hoosiers suffering from pain and other issues.
“Maybe we ought to just give it some time to see if this won’t be all that we need,” he said. “My reasoning is, if the CBD oil really does provide the pain relief and the medical assistance for these health issues, then why wouldn’t that be enough then?”
Another opponent, Republican Sen. Liz Brown of Fort Wayne, added that there is no well-defined pharmaceutical definition of what medical marijuana actually is. She called for further study on the issue, contending that Hoosier legislators do not have the expert knowledge to decide at this time.
“Before we make some serious mistakes and people end up having some serious side effects on it, let’s figure out what we really need and see what the benefits are and go from there,” Brown said.
Despite differences in opinion, legislators from both parties agreed that medical marijuana will be a hot topic for the upcoming legislative session. Stoops and Lucas think there is enough momentum for a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers to come together to pass legislation in favor of legalization.
“I think that the discussion will take place,” Stoops said. “Maybe I’ll be surprised again, maybe we’ll actually get something through this year.”
However, Tallian said a medical marijuana bill would have to get a committee hearing during the session first.
“That’s the first hurdle we have to get over,” she said.•