Marijuana advocates have little hope of persuading a legislative study committee to recommend legalization of the drug in Indiana this year, but they are hopeful the committee’s work could set up a regulatory system to oversee its decriminalization in the not-too-distant future.
The Interim Study Committee on Public Health, Behavioral Health and Human Services has been tasked with studying the potential health benefits and consequences of Delta-8, Delta-9 and other THC products, as well as the possibility of decriminalizing simple marijuana possession. The bipartisan panel has yet to schedule any hearings but must report its findings or recommendations by Nov. 1.
The committee’s work is widely expected to focus on tightening regulation of legal marijuana-related substances already on the market, a process that could lead to the formation of a commission to oversee the sale and distribution of cannabis products—along with examining their potential social and economic impacts—in the event the federal government legalizes marijuana or Indiana Republicans reduce their resistance to making a change before the feds take action.
“I do not see this [committee] as a road directly to legalizing marijuana,” said Rep. Ed Charbonneau, a Valparaiso Republican who is the study committee’s vice chair. “There’s just a lot of unknowns at this point, and I see this as a way to really start the discussion, which we really haven’t done to this point.”
Rep. Brad Barrett, R-Richmond, chair of the study committee, did not respond to IBJ’s request for comment.
While Indiana retailers are permitted to sell CBD, Delta-8 and Delta-9 products, no state regulatory body exists to oversee the sale or regulation of the products, which have not been approved by the FDA for safe use. Most sellers require consumers to be 21 years old to buy them, but some lawmakers would like to see greater oversight of the nascent industry.
Rep. Terri Austin, D-Indianapolis, said she is particularly concerned with the potential adverse health effects of the products and how they are marketed.
“We are seeing an increase in the adverse event reporting around that substance,” Austin said. “You do not want these to fall into the hands of kids.”
The FDA received 104 reports of adverse events in people who consumed Delta-8 THC products from Dec. 1, 2020, to Feb. 28, 2022. Of those reports, 77% involved adults and 8% involved children, with symptoms ranging from hallucinations, vomiting and tremors to anxiety, dizziness and loss of consciousness.
The Democratic lawmaker also introduced a bill during the 2022 legislative session that would have established a commission to study the economic and social impacts of legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. The measure never got a hearing, but she signed onto a bipartisan letter urging the Legislature to form a study committee to look into the regulation of cannabis products and potential decriminalization.
“I think if we’re going to keep kicking the can down the road, we ought to at least begin to educate ourselves about it,” Austin said. “Because at some point, maybe the feds are going to [legalize marijuana].”
In April, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level. The Senate did not take up the measure.
Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb has held firm on his position to uphold federal marijuana law.
A potential springboard
For marijuana reform advocates, the committee’s work is a hopeful sign that the state might be inching toward a more progressive attitude toward the drug, which is still classified by the federal government as a Schedule 1 substance—alongside more powerful and addictive substances like heroin and ecstasy.
The last time the Republican-controlled Legislature held any hearings on medical marijuana was 2018, the same year Congress passed the Farm Bill that removed hemp from the definition of marijuana in the Controlled Substances Act, paving the way for farmers to grow hemp and retailers to sell products that contained no more than 0.3% of Delta-9 THC, the ingredient in cannabis that gets users high.
A panel of Indiana lawmakers did not come to any consensus on medical marijuana that year, nor did it make any recommendations.
Since then, six states, including Alabama and Mississippi, have approved medical marijuana programs, and neighboring Illinois and Michigan have taken the next step and legalized adult-use marijuana, allowing those states to cash in on millions in revenue from taxing the product. (Illinois collected nearly $300 million in taxes from adult-use cannabis in fiscal year 2021, while Michigan collected more than $110 million.)
Indiana has a $6.1 billion surplus, so that argument is unlikely to persuade any Republican lawmakers, advocates say.
“They don’t see it because their bank account is always above budget,” said Frank Lloyd, founder of the Indiana Cannabis Chamber of Commerce and owner of two CBD dispensaries in Indianapolis. “But I feel like a lot of sacrifices are made because of that. We could be using that money to have better roads.”
And despite public polls showing a majority of Hoosiers support at least some degree of marijuana legalization, most Republicans lawmakers haven’t budged on the issue.
Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, is one of a few who has changed his mind.
“The fact that we’re spending untold amounts of resources arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating people simply over cannabis, to me, is criminal and immoral of the government,” Lucas said.
More than two-thirds of states offer a comprehensive medical marijuana program, leading marijuana reform advocates in Indiana to argue that it’s time the state provided the same option for Hoosiers.
Some traditionally conservative states are already moving to legalize the drug; Arkansas, North Dakota and Missouri all have marijuana legalization ballot initiatives this November.
In places where marijuana has been legal longer, there is a growing push to decriminalize and regulate access to magic mushrooms for their psychoactive component psilocybin, which some studies have shown can help treat depression and manage alcohol addiction. Colorado has one such measure on its ballot in November.
But Indiana isn’t there yet. Part of the reason is that, unlike states like California and New Jersey, which legalized marijuana by a referendum vote, Indiana is one of 24 states that do not have initiative and referendum processes that would allow Hoosiers to weigh in at the ballot box.
“You could have a million signatures, and that really wouldn’t accomplish anything,” Lloyd said.
Indiana House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, said he still needs to be convinced that legalization is the right policy for Indiana.
“Marijuana legalization remains a hot topic, and we recognize there are passionate voices on all sides, including within my own caucus,” Huston said in a statement to IBJ. “Legislators will dig into this issue as part of the interim study committee process, which will be a big challenge given the deep complexity and far-reaching effects of any policy change.”
Senate Pro Tempore Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, said he wants to hear testimony from committee hearings before offering an opinion on the issue.
Proponents of drug-free communities believe that more regulation is needed, particularly at the federal level, when it comes to overseeing cannabis products.
“We should be approving medicines through the FDA, not at the ballot box,” said Sue Thau, public policy consultant for the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America. “If there are really medical properties that are great for certain things, then let’s go through the FDA process.”
Thau argues that states that establish a medical marijuana program are creating a kind of “gateway drug”—the first step toward more lenient drug policies.
“People in Indiana need to understand what the playbook is,” Thau said. “And this is sort of the first play in the long-term strategy to legalize all illegal drugs.”
With the prospect of legalization slim in Indiana in the short term, reform advocates say the most likely gains to be made during the next legislative session would come in the formation of a regulatory commission or exploratory body.
“If we can educate the health care professionals and get a compliance committee created, then we can make great leaps and strides in Indiana to protect everybody involved,” said Jason Straw, a marijuana reform advocate and retired nurse who chairs the board of Indiana NORML.
Charbonneau, vice chair of the study committee, said he is keeping an open mind.
“I’m going into the summer study committee to listen and try and understand what it means for someone suffering with some medical issue where medical marijuana would help them deal with it.”•