Indiana legislative committee weighs cannabis legalization but fails to make recommendations

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Could Indiana be moving toward less stringent marijuana laws, or even total cannabis legalization?

State lawmakers floated those questions Wednesday during a six-hour meeting at the Statehouse.

The Interim Study Committee on Commerce and Economic Development is examining “the legalization of adult-use cannabis in Indiana as it relates to workforce impacts and teen use.”

Although not specifically tasked with doing so, the committee further entertained testimony around the possibility of decriminalizing simple marijuana possession, and discussed potential health and economic benefits of THC products.

What’s at stake

Indiana retailers are currently allowed to sell some marijuana-related products — like CBD, Delta-8 and Delta-9 products — but there’s no state regulatory body to oversee the industry.

Some who testified before the panel called for a state-regulated marijuana market, emphasizing expanded access to a medicinal product and an increased likelihood for cleaner, safer products. Others were more conservative, recommending better labeling for current CBD products already on the market and more restrictions to ensure those products stay out of the hands of minors.

“While Indiana certainly is not going to be one of the first states to move on responsible cannabis reform, we do have the unique opportunity to be the first state to do it right,” said Justin Swanson, representing the Midwest Hemp Council. “That would mean our laws and regulations are structured in a manner that enable Hoosier farmers, manufacturers and retailers to outcompete their number one competitor, the current illicit market.”

But various other medical and legal experts cautioned that a legal adult-use market could have negative impacts on employment and make it easier for youth to access cannabis products.

“We’re not talking about flower and marijuana joints anymore of the 70s. These new products we’re talking about — cannabis-infused with pink lemonade gummies, candies, cookies, ice cream sodas — these are legally being sold in the state-regulated markets,” said Luke Niforatos, executive vice president of the nonprofit Smart Approaches to Marijuana. “We may say we’re OK with that risk. We’ve normalized alcohol use, we’ve normalized tobacco use and we’re okay with extending those consequences to kids. But we need to be open-eyed about what we’re doing in terms of the message we’re sending. … We need to keep this from targeting kids.”

For several years, Democrats and a handful of Republicans have introduced bills focused on medical or recreational marijuana. None have mustered enough support to move forward, however.

Indiana is one of 12 states that has not legalized marijuana either for medical or recreational purposes.

GOP legislative leaders have said they would prefer to wait for federal legalization first, but they were open to talking about the idea during Wednesday’s meeting.

Lawmakers did not take any new legislative action Wednesday and cannot do so until the new session starts in January. It’s too soon to tell if any bills regarding marijuana legalization could advance at the Statehouse in 2024.

Fort Wayne Republican Rep. Bob Morris — who has previously proposed efforts to expand Indiana’s cannabis laws — moved for the interim committee to make recommendations related to hemp products, but committee chairman Sen. Scott Baldwin, R-Noblesville, resisted.

Multiple Democratic lawmakers also opposed Baldwin’s notion that the committee “would not gain consensus” on cannabis-related policy recommendations. The panel ultimately failed to secure enough votes to adopt any recommendations on any of the committee’s study topics.

Even so, lawmakers are free to file cannabis-related bills when the General Assembly reconvenes.

“One thing is for certain — we’re probably not going to solve it in this committee hearing today,” Baldwin said about the cannabis topic. “And further, we owe it to the taxpayers, the Hoosiers here in Indiana, to thoroughly study this. I think everybody agrees that if we do something, it needs to be done, and we need to be thoughtful and contemplative about it.”

Reaping the benefits of marijuana

Ari Kirshenbaum, a senior behavioral scientist with Cannabis Public Policy Consulting, presented survey data showing that 40.5% of those between the ages of 16 and 25 report using cannabis daily or almost daily. Around 60% said they use the substance at least once a week.

Indiana’s statistics are on par — 39% of Hoosiers in that age group said they use cannabis daily or almost daily, and 59.5% use it at least once weekly, even though it remains illegal.

He said Indiana’s prevalence of youth cannabis use is comparable to other states with regulated medical and adult-use markets, as well as to states that have neither.

Kirshenbaum said national surveys indicate that about 9% of people who try cannabis later have a hard time stopping their use. That’s compared to about 30% of people who tried tobacco and struggled to quit.

Still, he said there’s a disproportionate number of cannabis use disorder cases — defined by mental health experts as the inability to stop using marijuana, even when it causes health and social problems — found in those between 18 and 25 years old. Almost 50% of all cases in the United States are in that particular age category.

Kirshenbaum said there’s a “perennial problem” with cannabis use among younger users, but data suggests the prevalence of cannabis use disorder is no more common in states with legal marijuana use.

He added, too, that there is “insufficient evidence to say that cannabis produces mental health illness” in any individuals, although there is an increased risk of cannabis use disorder for those who have already been diagnosed with a mental health illness.

Keith Johnson, a board member for Indiana’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, held that opiate use and overdoses reduce in communities after cannabis legalization.

He said fatal work injuries also decreased in states that adopted medical marijuana laws. Workers in those states are additionally more productive and less likely to get hooked on prescription drugs needed for chronic pain.

Johnson also applauded several Shelby County companies that have recently stopped testing for cannabis.

“They’ve determined that the metric of the good worker — or the potential for the metric of a good worker — isn’t whether or not they utilize cannabis in any way, shape or form. It’s how they perform on the job,” Johnson said. “They found that in order to get talented, skilled laborers, workers, maintenance people and machine operators that are competent and good, sometimes they had to look past the marijuana testing.”

Zach Stock with the Indiana Public Defender Council added that marijuana-related arrests and prosecutions lead to dozens of lost labor hours. He said a person typically loses at least 10 days of work due to time spent in jail and traveling to and from court, as well as from community service required for those who qualify for diversion.

“Our members are on the frontlines of the war on drugs, and we know the toll that prohibition can take on the working lives of our clients,” Stock said. “Typically, an end to criminalizing this is not treating it criminally. Treating it some other way would go a long way to free those hours for productive use.”

White River Township Fire Department Chief Jeremy Pell additionally shared about recent changes to his department’s drug policy to allow firefighters to use CBD products.

The new policy change includes using CBD and Delta-8 products in any form. CBD has been legal in Indiana since March 2018, but Pell said the decision to allow staff to use such products has “benefited” firefighters’ overall wellbeing.

But depending on the CBD product, it’s possible to test positive during a traditional drug screening for THC, given that CBD in Indiana can legally contain .3 percent of THC. Without further testing, the results would look the same as someone who had been using traditional marijuana.

Pell maintained that the policy does not permit impairment while on the job and that firefighters are only allowed to use CBD products when they are not on a shift. In the year since the department’s policy took effect, he said the department has not had any issues related to CBD use among the staff.

“We have a very difficult job, and it’s no secret that PTSD is an issue. We have men and women in the department — and fire, EMS, law enforcement and dispatch — that go home and reprocess these incidents over and over again. My primary responsibility is to the well-being of the men and women of the department. … If I keep them healthy, then we’re more apt to be able to keep you healthy,” he said.

“I had just seen too much over my years of people that had self-medicated with alcohol or taken prescription drugs outside of their prescribed use, or even found other ways to get their handson illegal drugs,” Pell continued. “I just don’t want to see them do that — I wanted them to get the help they need, and science has shown that there are therapeutic effects to using CBD.”

A bad policy move?

But the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, which has long remained opposed to cannabis legalization, said opening up marijuana use will make it harder for Hoosier employers to find workers.

Ashton Eller, vice president of health care policy and employment law, said the chamber opposes marijuana legalization for medical or therapeutic use “until the time when its efficacy and safety have been proven to be consistent through clinical trials.”

“Each employer’s workforce is generally their greatest asset. And often attracting and retaining employees is an employer’s greatest challenge,” he said. “The bottom line is that any increase in (marijuana) positivity tests impacts our workforce. We don’t want Hoosier employers to have to further increase their hiring costs by actively searching outside state lines for potential employees.”

Separately, Niforatos argued that cannabis legalization “truly means commercializing marijuana and turning it into a business.”

“We’re creating another tobacco crisis,” Niforatos told the committee on Wednesday. He said his organization believes there “definitely needs to be changes” to federal and state laws that can be addressed “without legalizing and commercializing this drug.”

He added that laws written with “the best of intentions” still can’t guarantee that kids won’t have increased access to cannabis.

“I don’t think taxpayers want to pay to have a cop in every single store and every single house to make sure everyone’s abiding by the rules,” Niforatos continued. “But it’s a false choice to say either yes, commercialization, or continue to lock people up. That’s a false dichotomy.”

Brock Patterson with the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council said that black market sales do not disappear after legalization, and that it’s difficult to ensure growers and sellers adhere to licensing requirements in regulated cannabis markets.

He also reiterated that in states where adults can use marijuana, “children gain access to the drug, too.”

“Cannabis regulation is anything but regulated, regardless of the model. The industry causes a litany of issues that harms citizens and costs the states massive amounts of money — in many estimates, these issues cost more than any revenue generated through the various tax structures,” Patterson said.

“I’ve heard in response to the criticism that other states just haven’t done it right and that Indiana has the opportunity to do it right. I find it very difficult to believe that there is a right way to do regulation when every state thus far has failed to do it. And until clear evidence is available, Indiana is better off without this industry and all the issues that it brings,” Patterson continued.

The Indiana Capital Chronicle is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that covers state government, policy and elections.

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