Indiana House Republican to file sweeping marijuana legalization bill

A Republican lawmaker outside of the usual champions for cannabis legislation in the Indiana General Assembly will carry a sweeping bill to make recreational and medical marijuana legal in Indiana.

Rep. Cindy Ziemke, R-Batesville, said she authored the bill for the upcoming legislative session after she was approached by several lobbyists to carry it and did her own research on related laws in other states.

She acknowledges that it will be difficult to persuade reluctant Republican legislative leaders to give the bill a chance. However, some political observers believe Ziemke’s interest in the issue could at least open the conversation in the GOP-dominated Legislature.

Her bill would mimic Michigan’s marijuana law. It would legalize marijuana for medical and adult use for anyone over the age of 21 in Indiana, while also putting in a strict regulation system. It would establish a state commission, similar to Indiana’s gaming and alcohol and tobacco commissions, to regulate products for sale, set the number of allowed dispensaries and designate that tax revenue from marijuana sales be used for public health.

Ziemke said a number of reasons drove her to carry a marijuana legalization bill. For one, she fears Indiana is losing ground to the neighboring states of Michigan, Illinois and Ohio, where some form of marijuana use already is legal.

Ziemke also has long been an advocate for raising awareness about drug abuse and addiction during her 10 years in the legislature, largely because of the experiences of her two adult sons who are going on eight years recovering from heroin addictions.

“So much of it also comes from when I called my son and I said, you know, what do you think about me authoring this cannabis bill? And he said, ‘You should do it.’ He said, ‘because you, know those folks will go to a dealer to get pot and could end up leaving one day with meth,’” Ziemke said. “I want a safe product that’s out there that’s controlled.”

Ziemke said she sees this as an opportunity to use the revenue from marijuana sales to go to funding for better public health in Indiana.

“We are so good at so much. But when it comes to public health, we are horrible,” Ziemke said. “So if that would generate monies that could go more into public health for our state, that’s how I envisioned it for both public health and mental health and addiction.”

Still, Ziemke said she knows she has a steep hill to climb persuading Republican leaders at the Statehouse to give the bill a hearing in the House Public Policy committee, a hurdle most marijuana legislation in Indiana can’t get over.

Historically, the dozen bills drafted each year relating to marijuana are not given hearings in their assigned committees. That is a move determined by the committee chairs, who generally take their marching orders from House and Senate leaders.

Ziemke has had passing conversations on marijuana legalization with House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, and Gov. Eric Holcomb and has asked them keep an open mind.

She has also worked with Rep. Ben Smaltz, R-Auburn, who is chair of the Public Policy committee, who she said was open to the conversation, but likely won’t give the bill a hearing without Huston’s blessing.

“No matter how hard I’ve tried … I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get a hearing for it,” Ziemke said. “I’m pragmatic enough to know that during a short session this is hard, and with the governor being reluctant … it’s hard. So, you know, typically I wouldn’t run with a bill unless I could get it passed. But I think this is important.”

Holcomb has staked out a firm stand against marijuana legalization in Indiana until it is legalized at the federal level. He softened his stance slightly this month when he said in an interview with Indy Politics that he would be fine with a law setting up a licensing structure for legal cannabis to prepare the state in the event federal law changes.

Huston and Bray also have been cold to the possibility of marijuana legalization during the 2022 legislative session.

Huston has said he will assign any marijuana-related bill to committees, but added that he has yet to be convinced legalizing it in any form is good public policy.

“I’m interested in hearing more of those conversations, but so far, you know, I’ve kind of stayed where I am on it,” Huston said.  “I know we’re going to have members filing bills on this topic, and they’ll have to be assigned to a committee. But, you know, for me, it’s always been about I just want to get to what I think is the right public policy.”

Smaltz did not respond to IBJ’s requests for an interview.

Political observers see Ziemke as generally well-respected in the caucus, serving as assistant majority chair. Her involvement could carry some weight to shift leadership’s minds, said Chad Kinsella, managing director of the Bowen Center for Public Affairs at Ball State University.

Marijuana has long been an issue Democrats push for, so having a Republican in general carry a marijuana bill is necessary for it to pass the legislature where Republicans hold supermajorities in both the House and Senate, Kinsella said.

Many Hoosiers are already on board. In Ball State’s 2018 Hoosier Survey, nearly 80% of respondents said they wanted some form of marijuana legalization, medical or recreational, in Indiana. And 50% of Republican respondents said they were at least in favor of medical legalization.

When Ziemke conducted her 2021 legislative survey in her district, 60% of respondents to that also said they were in favor of medical marijuana legalization.

Kinsella said with growing public opinion for marijuana legalization and now more members of their own party pushing for legislation, Republican leaders will soon have to come to terms with considering a bill, or they will have to answer to why they are not doing what voters want.

Ziemke said she is working with some House Democrats and the Black Legislative Caucus on her bill.

Rep. Sue Errington, D-Muncie, who typically files marijuana legislation each year in the House said she offered to help Ziemke in any way she could.

“I think it stands a chance, particularly because of the fact that she is a Republican who’s been around for quite a while,” Errington said. “It all still comes down to what the House and Senate leadership decide to do whether they’re ready to take this move or not.”

Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, another Republican who is the usual champion of marijuana legislation, also said he would be on board with working with Ziemke on her bill.

“The more the merrier,” Lucas said. “I’m supportive of any shape or form of moving this issue forward. It’s not who gets credit for it, as long as we get this done.”

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