Marijuana backers prepping for ‘inevitable’ legalization

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Inside a two-story, 190,000-square-foot modern office building in Fishers is the headquarters of Round Room LLC, the country’s largest authorized Verizon retailer.

The company’s founder and CEO, Scott Moorehead, 45, is known in the central Indiana business community for turning his parents’ modest telecommunications company into a behemoth in the retail cellphone industry, quadrupling the number of employees and growing revenue 1,400% over the course of a decade.

Scott Moorehead

But as demand for brick-and-mortar cellphone stores waned, he and his wife, Julie, began looking for other investment opportunities. In 2017, they saw one in Michigan, which was set to vote on a ballot measure that would move the state from a medical-only cannabis model to a fully regulated, adult-use market.

Moorehead asked Katie Wiley, Round Room’s chief legal and strategy officer, to explore potential avenues for entering the cannabis industry in Indiana’s northern neighbor.

Six years later, Michigan-based Stash Ventures LLC is a 175-person enterprise with three indoor growing operations, a processing facility and five retail dispensaries — a vertically integrated cannabis company.

Moorehead declined to say how much revenue the company is bringing in but did say he spends roughly half his working hours on his new venture. And while he’s pleased with its progress, he said Indiana is missing out on a valuable opportunity by remaining one of only 13 states without a medical or adult-use cannabis program.To that end, Stash Ventures has hired several lobbyists to push for cannabis legalization in Indiana. The company dished out $191,347 toward lobbying efforts in 2022, according to the Indiana Lobby Registration Commission.

“I think we’re missing out on a big part of being an impactful player in the industry,” Moorehead said. “We’re gonna miss out on high-paying jobs that the governor said he wants to focus on bringing here.”

A recent economic impact analysis by Whitney Economics, an Oregon-based business and economic consulting firm that studies the fiscal impacts of legal cannabis, found that an adult-use program in Indiana would result in more than 14,000 jobs and over $900 million in sales by 2025, generating more than $2.2 billion in economic activity.

With no market in Indiana, Hoosiers are increasingly traveling across state lines to Illinois or Michigan to buy marijuana. A recent report from the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation found that the state made more than $479 million last year from out-of-state cannabis sales.

Last summer, Hoosier lawmakers convened a legislative study committee to consider decriminalization and the potential health benefits and consequences of cannabis use.

Wiley was among the representatives from the cannabis industry who urged lawmakers to consider legalizing the substance.

She noted that Stash Ventures was founded in Marion but decided to move to Michigan when it became obvious that Indiana wasn’t going to legalize cannabis anytime soon.

“If Indiana had been available when we started in the state of Michigan, we would have started here without investment,” Wiley told lawmakers.

After three meetings, the study committee declined to make any recommendations.

Hoping for modest gains

Hoosier lawmakers from both parties filed a total of 13 cannabis-related bills in the Indiana General Assembly this session, more than in any previous year. But none have received a committee hearing.

With decriminalization or legalization seemingly off the table, advocates are turning their attention to a “trigger law” that would set up a regulatory framework for marijuana if the substance becomes legal at the federal level.

Several people familiar with House Bill 1039, authored by Rep. Jake Teshka, R-South Bend, said optimism is growing that the legislation could get a hearing.

The bill was referred last month to the House Public Health Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Brad Barrett. The Republican from Richmond declined to comment when asked if he planned to hear the bill.

House Minority Leader Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, said he supports the bill and would expect his Democratic colleagues to follow suit.

House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, declined to say whether he would support Teshka’s proposal.

Gov. Eric Holcomb hasn’t wavered from his stance that Indiana should wait until marijuana is federally legalized before taking action. When asked if he would support Teshka’s trigger bill, Holcomb said he “doesn’t deal in hypotheticals.”

But marijuana reform advocates believe that, by waiting on the federal government to take action, Indiana leaves itself vulnerable to multistate operations swooping in and taking business opportunities from Hoosiers who want to get into the industry.

“The longer we wait, the more at a disadvantage we are as a state when we go to compete on the national and international market,” said Justin Swanson, a principal at Bose Public Affairs Group and co-founder of the Midwest Hemp Council.

Meanwhile, a bill that would regulate the craft hemp flower market and impose an 8% excise tax on sales of low-THC products appears to be gaining traction.

Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, who authored Senate Bill 293 and chairs the Senate Tax & Fiscal Policy Committee, said lawmakers planned to hold a hearing on the bill on Tuesday.

‘An island of prohibition’

Public opinion around legal marijuana use has changed dramatically in the past 25 years.

In 2000, only 25% of Americans thought marijuana should be legalized. By 2020, that number jumped to 68%.

In Indiana, a recent poll indicates support might be even greater now. In a survey of 600 Hoosiers, Ball State University’s Bowen Center for Public Affairs and Indiana Public Broadcasting found that 85% of residents support marijuana for medicinal or personal use.

“Indiana is an island of prohibition,” Teshka said. “If we don’t act as a state, we will put Hoosier businesses at a disadvantage.”

Moorehead said the public discourse around marijuana is much different from the conversations going on behind closed doors. Since he started Stash Ventures, he’s discovered that some of the most successful entrepreneurs in the state are regular cannabis users, he said — though they won’t admit it publicly or work to persuade Indiana legislators to change the state’s policy.

“My kids go to a hoity-toity private school, and the minute all the other parents find out what I’m into, they immediately tell me all the (expletive) that they got in their house,” Moorehead said. “People who run the biggest businesses in the entire state. And I’m like, ‘Can’t you just tell your legislator that?’”•

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