Lawmakers considered the advantages and shortcomings of legalizing certain cannabinoids Tuesday, potentially as a precursor to legalizing the plant itself for recreational use. But the research offered frequently conflicted and the committee abruptly ended, with discussion expected to continue next month.
Over the course of four hours, committee members from the Interim Study Committee on Public Health, Behavioral Health, and Human Services heard testimony for and against legalization, from veterans using it to treat chronic pain to prosecutors worried about unintended consequences. Though called to study the legalization of Delta-8, a cannabinoid, committee testimony largely centered on legalization of marijuana medicinally or for recreational use, which three of Indiana’s neighboring states allow.
In the day’s final testimony to the committee, Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, said he needed “a gummy” himself after listening to four hours of discussion.
Lucas noted that 24 veterans commit suicide every day and that veterans had previously testified about the effectiveness of cannabis.
“We know there are so many positives for cannabis. Shame on us for criminalizing responsible Hoosiers that simply want a better quality of life — they don’t want to be put toward that place where they’re (suicidal) … because they can’t take it anymore,” he said, “begging” legislators to act. “It rests on you to make the decisions whether we move forward with a responsible cannabis program or we continue to stay in the dark ages.”
Drawing a line between hemp and cannabis
Several representatives from the hemp industry and cannabis industry urged lawmakers to consider legalizing the substance, which Republicans have largely resisted for years by saying they want to wait for federal approval.
Hemp and cannabis differ, largely based on the levels of chemical cannabinoids. Hemp is currently legal to produce with restrictions in Indiana but difficult to regulate because the plants for both substances look and smell similar and can only be distinguished in a laboratory, according to testimony.
Though Stash Ventures was founded in Marion and even headquartered in Fishers at one time, the company moved to Michigan when it seemed that Indiana was unlikely to legalize cannabis in the near future.
“If Indiana had been available when we started in the state of Michigan, we would have started here with our investment,” said Katie Wiley, the company’s chief legal officer and chief strategy officer.
Wiley, a Hoosier attorney for more than 20 years, said Stash Ventures was a vertically integrated cannabis company, meaning it held growing, processing and retail sale licenses.
She pushed lawmakers toward legalization, saying that as a parent, she didn’t want her children potentially encountering unsafe products in an illicit market. Some lawmakers said they’d encountered reports of marijuana laced with fentanyl, a highly addictive and dangerous substance largely responsible for the recent rise in overdose deaths.
“As a retailer in Michigan, we can tell you that we have Indiana residents buying from us in the state of Michigan,” Wiley said. “I want a regulated market (here)… (If) my child got on something, I would want to know what was in it.”
The longer Indiana delays, waiting for the “inevitable” legalization on the federal level, Wiley said, the more businesses would choose to invest elsewhere.
Conflicted research on proposed legalization
Business representatives with the Chamber of Commerce urged a delay, saying Indiana’s testing capacity isn’t prepared to reliably screen for impairment.
Mike Ripley, a vice president with the organization, said employers struggle to test for drug use when marijuana can appear on tests days after consumption.
“Those kinds of things we don’t know (how to do) yet and that’s why we think that, the longer we wait to implement things, the more data comes out,” Ripley said. “We think time is on our side.”
But public defenders observed that testing deficiencies already complicate prosecutions, noting that Marion County recently suspended marijuana arrests after a lawsuit saying that their systems couldn’t reliably determine the potency of cannabis.
“Even though (cases) are impossible to prove, they definitely affect our client’s lives,” Monroe County deputy public defender Noah Williams said. “If you’re going to charge someone with this offense, you need to be able to prove it.”
One cited study from a religious school concluded that Coloradans spend $4.57 to mitigate marijuana’s effects for every tax dollar it collects from the legalized substance — a statistic Sen. Ed Charbonneau said he found concerning.
“I find it ironic that there’s a ton of money out there to be made by individuals but also by the state of Indiana and I want to make sure that we don’t get hooked on the money,” Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso, said. “We’ve found a way, maybe, to spend some of that great amount of money… on the problems that we create.”
But other presentations provided conflicting information, reporting lower health care costs, lower opioid overdose deaths and more efficient law enforcement agencies. Yet another set of studies determined cannabis use reduced prescription drug reliance for chronic pain and had fewer side effects.
Committee Chair Rep. Brad Barrett, R-Richmond, abruptly ended the meeting, saying he and others would stay to hear additional testimony privately but ended the official livestream after four hours of testimony. The committee is scheduled to meet again on Oct. 4.