Still no harvest: Marijuana bills continue to stall in Indiana General Assembly in 2024

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To some, it seemed like the 2023 session of the Indiana General Assembly marked a turning point for marijuana-related legislation.

Heath VanNatter

In 2023, House Bill 1297, authored by Rep. Heath VanNatter, R-Kokomo, made history by actually getting a legislative hearing. That bill would have decriminalized possession of two ounces or less of marijuana.

Advocates and legislators who support decriminalization, or legalizing marijuana for recreational or medical uses, held out hope that the legislative momentum would continue in 2024.

That didn’t prove to be the case.

This year, there were 10 marijuana-related bills filed in the Indiana House and Senate.

None made it out of committee.

VanNatter, who co-authored HBs 1349, 1350 and 1410 this year, said he hears from constituents all the time about the state’s need to legalize marijuana for either recreational or medical reasons.

The Kokomo representative said there’s still hesitation from the Legislature and Gov. Eric Holcomb to pass bills linked to legalization.

Still, given last year’s historic hearing, VanNatter said he remains confident Indiana will join surrounding states in legalizing marijuana.

“We’re going to get there at some point,” he said.

Polls show support

The 2022 Hoosier Survey, a poll conducted by Indiana Public Broadcasting and Ball State University’s Bowen Center for Public Affairs, showed more than 85% of the 600 respondents supported marijuana legalization in some form, compared to 15% who said it should be illegal.

Against that backdrop, legislators in the 2024 session filed bills like Senate Bill 126, authored by Senate Minority Leader Greg Taylor of Indianapolis, that looked to establish a medical marijuana program and to permit caregivers and patients who have received a physician recommendation to possess a certain quantity of marijuana for treatment of certain medical conditions.

Taylor’s bill also sought to establish a regulatory agency to oversee the program.

Jake Teshka

In the Indiana House, VanNatter co-authored HB 1349 and 1350 with Rep. Jake Teshka, R-North Liberty, and Rep. Steve Bartels, R-Eckerty.

Like last year’s HB 1297, HB 1349 would have decriminalized possession of two ounces or less of marijuana. HB 1350 looked to establish a procedure for the lawful production and sale of cannabis in Indiana.

In 2023, Teshka also authored House Bill 1039, a piece of legislation that sought to legalize and provide a regulatory infrastructure for medical and adult use cannabis after marijuana is removed as a federal Schedule I controlled substance.

Teshka told Indiana Lawyer that the Legislature needs to be having discussions about legalization, particularly given that most surrounding states have approved marijuana for both recreational and medical use.

“We’ve got to be having the conversation now,” he said.

National efforts

In neighboring Ohio, voters approved a ballot initiative in November 2023 legalizing recreational marijuana. Passage of Issue 2 made Ohio the 24th state to allow adult cannabis use for nonmedical purposes.

Each state surrounding Indiana has legalized either recreational or medical marijuana, with some states legalizing the drug for both uses.

Nationwide, California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996. Since then, the medical use of cannabis has been legalized in 40 states and the District of Columbia.

Sen. Rodney Pol

Back in Indiana, Sens. Eric Bassler, R-Washington, and Rodney Pol, D-Chesterton, this year co-authored SB 294 for medical cannabis.

After marijuana is removed as a federal Schedule I controlled substance, the bill sought to permit the use of cannabis by a person with a serious medical condition as determined by the person’s physician. It would also establish a cannabis program to permit the cultivation, processing, testing, transportation and sale of cannabis by holders of a valid permit, as well as set up an Indiana Cannabis Commission as a state agency to oversee, implement and enforce the program.

Pol said he and other supporters of legalization have been running into the same talking points from legislative opponents for years.

He said arguments against legalizing marijuana have shifted from, “The state needs to wait for the federal government to reschedule marijuana,” to, “The Legislature doesn’t have time to deal with the issue.”

“It’s becoming clear it’s an avoidance tactic,” Pol said.

Last August, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services delivered a recommendation to the Drug Enforcement Administration that marijuana be moved from a Schedule I to a Schedule III controlled substance.

Republican Gov. Holcomb has held firm that Indiana should wait until marijuana is federally legalized before considering legalization in the state.

Next year?

Pol said he’s filed marijuana-related bills every year he’s been in the Senate.

That won’t change next year.

“I filed for three years in a row since I started, and I’ll continue to do so,” he said.

Pleas to pass some form of marijuana legislation are among the most common requests from his constituents, Pol added.

Given his area’s close proximity to Illinois and Michigan, Pol said he and residents in northwest Indiana have seen the good economic effects of marijuana legalization, as well as the benefits of decriminalizing the drug.

Pol said he thinks the hesitation to legalize in Indiana comes primarily from the Legislature.

Also, with Holcomb leaving office at the end of the year, Pol said he hasn’t seen any Republican gubernatorial candidates speak out about the need for marijuana legalization.

Conversely, Pol pointed to Democratic candidate Jennifer McCormick, who he said seems to be more open to the idea of legalization.

Teshka said he would probably be a lead author or co-author for marijuana-related bills in the state’s 2025 legislative session.

Like Pol, Teshka said he finds broad support for legalization in his district from Republicans, Democrats, independents and people with other political affiliations.

Likewise, VanNatter said he’s definitely going to introduce legislation next year, with the Kokomo representative noting there will be a new governor and several new representatives and senators at the Statehouse in 2025.

He said decriminalization is his biggest priority.

“Every election cycle, there’s more and more people that are supportive,” VanNatter said.•

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