The State of Cannabis Reform in Indiana

During the 2018 legislative session, state representative Jim Lucas (R-69) introduced his first medical cannabis bill, HB 1106, which quickly gained three co-authors after being assigned to the House Public Health committee. Fellow Republican Sean Eberhart (district 57) joined Lucas along with Democrats Sue Errington (district 34) and Chuck Moseley (district 10) on the bill, offering bipartisan for the reform.

Citing the short session and limited time for hearings, public health chairwoman Representative Cindy Kirchhofer (R-89) opted instead to hold a hearing for House Resolution 2, authored by Representative Math Lehman (R-79) along with co-authors including herself, Representative Chris Judy (R-83), and Representative Vanessa Summers (D-99), which called for the legislative council to assign the topic of medical marijuana to the interim Public Health committee as well as requesting that the federal government remove cannabis from the Schedule I category in the Controlled Substances Act. Lehman’s interest in advancing the conversation originates in part from his friendship with his mentor and former state representative Tom Knollman, who refuses opioids in the treatment of his multiple sclerosis and is an advocate for legalizing cannabis. Citing the diametric opinions involved in this topic, from individuals such as Knollman citing their personal experience of the benefit on one hand to law enforcement and other organizations warning against going down the route of legalization on the other, Lehman explained that he thought it was time for our state to begin looking into the evidence as well as the experiences of other states and the overall impact on society.

HR 2 passed out of committee and was adopted by the House in a unanimous 94-0 vote, leading to the interim Public Health hearing that took place on October 18th of 2018. Numerous individuals testified in favor, including I.U. oncologist Dr. Alan Greenspan, Illinois state representative Tim Butler, as well as Marshall county prosecutor Nelson Chipman, who testified in a break from the official stance of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorney Council (IPAC), an organization that has maintained a persistent presence at hearings involving any potential legalization of cannabis including agricultural hemp and low-THC hemp extracts.

During the discussion following testimony, state senator Mark Stoops (D-40) proposed a recommendation to create a state regulatory agency or commission to asses the impact and effectiveness of various regulatory schemes for a medical cannabis program, given the evidence and potential of cannabis for a variety of conditions and the number of states that have already instituted medical cannabis programs. His original language was amended to only specifically mention conditions for which there is a high level of evidence, based on a list of evidence levels provided by lay committee member Dr. Richard Feldman, although this motion was voted down by committee members and instead a statement claiming that the committee failed to reach a consensus and recommended further study was agreed upon by the committee.

There were varying reasons for opposition to Stoops’ motion, from wanting to hear from constituents before voting in favor (Senator Vaneta Becker), to concerns about creating a new commission to evaluate regulatory options. “I am opposed to creating another government bureaucratic agency and believe that it is not taxpayer friendly,” explained state representative Steven Davvisson (R-73) to constituents in the Facebook group Concerned Taxpayers of Washington County, defending his vote against Senator Stoops’ proposed recommendation to constituents. “It doesn’t matter what the committee recommends because a bill still must be brought forward in the General Assembly and I’m sure there will be many bills addressing this topic.” True to his prediction, a record number of cannabis bills have been introduced for consideration during the 2019 session, including a total of 13 that pertain to either medical or decriminalization.

“I understand many people have concerns about this issue,” Representative Davisson added, “but ultimately any recommendation from the committee would have only been exactly that, a recommendation. It could have been accepted by the General Assembly or ignored. By not reaching a consensus on the topic neither positive or negative, it will still be open for discussion in the General Assembly.”

With what amounted to a neutral recommendation and a call for further legislative discussion, one might have thought that when the House Public Health committee convened in January for the start of the 2019 session that they might have heeded that call by scheduling a hearing for one of the several medical cannabis bills assigned to the committee. While a hearing might not lead to the passage of a bill, it would have at minimum provided the opportunity for the type of detailed discussion requested by some interim committee members.

Senator John Ruckelshaus (R-30), who served on the interim Public Health committee and is the ranking member of the Senate Health and Provider Services committee, commented on the summer study process at a Hamilton County town hall on January 26th. “I must admit that that committee was not a robust committee. It was not a committee where we really got (I’m not going to say ‘into the weeds’) into the true depth of the issue because one of the things we really didn’t get into was to study about the other states, whose doing this right, whose doing it safe. I want say from my heart with this issue that I am open to this issue because some of you know the story about my son, who is a quadriplegic. I know how families suffer, I have seen families suffer, I have seen individuals suffer, so this is very important to me and I know this is sweeping the country right now.”

While Senator Ruckelshaus was not satisfied with the breadth of the testimony at the interim hearing, the summer study process was originally billed as a comprehensive look at the issue. “Study committees are a great tool for the legislature to fully review issues. While the federal government has yet to recognize the use of medical cannabis, we plan to fully review the issue,” Representative Cindy Kirchhoffer claimed in the lead-up to the hearing. “There is no guarantee that legislation or policy changes will come from study committee, however this is a great chance for citizens to actively engage in the legislative process and share their thoughts on this complex topic.”

With the number of speakers both supportive and opposed scheduled into a several hour hearing, many speakers rushed through their presentations in order to allow time for everyone to speak. In a phone conversation, Senator Ruckelshaus explained that the type of discussion he would like to see on this issue would involve several days of hearings where legislators can really dive into the details of how other states are implementing medical programs and which ones have the best practices that could be implemented in Indiana.

“In Indiana we must do it right, we must do it safe,” Ruckelshaus stated in his final comments at the Hamilton County town hall. “So again, I am open to this concept, but we need to have more discussion.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like there will be any further discussion at all this session, at least not in a manner which allows public participation or the possibility, however faint, of advancing legislation. Representative Kirchhoffer explained that in lieu of hearing any of the medical cannabis bills assigned to her committee, she wants the Senate to take up the issue this year because the Senate Democrats made medical cannabis part of their 2019 legislative priorities. The Democrats, being the minority political party, do not hold any committee chair positions and therefore do not have any further ability to advance this conversation beyond the bills they have introduced.

The fate of non-hemp cannabis in the Senate rests in the hands of two individuals: Senator Ed Charbonneau (R-5) and Senator Mike Young (R-35). Senator Charbonneau is the chair of the Health and Provider Services committee, which was assigned two cannabis bills: S 357, Karen Tallian’s bill establishing a medical cannabis program, and S 287, introduced by Senator Mark Stoops, which would create a defense-to-possession for those whose doctors certify in writing that they have a terminal illness or serious untreatable disease. Karen Tallian also filed a decriminalization bill, S 213, which was assigned to Senator Mike Young’s Corrections & Criminal Law committee.

In a recent interview with Fox59, Senator Charbonneau told reporters that he was unwilling to consider allowing use while it is still illegal under federal law, offering little hope for a hearing in his committee this year. While Tallian’s bill would offer a more complete medical program, Stoops’ bill stops short of legalizing use per se or even setting up a legal or regulated supply chain, instead merely offering a defense to possession for those with terminal or untreatable conditions. This reform would circumvent any perceived or real concerns with state legalization in spite of federal law, although Senator Charbonneau has not yet responded to any queries asking if he would consider hearing this bill.

Senator Mike Young, who authored the 2018 bill legalizing low-THC hemp extract, would not commit to a hearing for the decriminalization bill assigned to his committee, however he did make the following statement on the Indiana NORML Facebook page in response to a question about whether or not he would be willing to comment on the possibility of hearing S 213 in his committee: “Only to say that I have 70 or so bills assigned to my committee. I have only 7 possible hearing dates available and have already had three meeting totaling 13 bills heard with one carryover. Which means I only have four dates left where I can hear 12 bills of the 57 that remain.”

“He has said that he will hear certain bills as time allows,” his legislative aide, Andrianna Hji-Avgouti, stated in an email. “As of right now, he has them prioritized and that is how he chooses what to hear in committee.” It is unclear how far down the list of bills assigned to his committee that S 213 is prioritized, although this offers the slight possibility that Senator Young has at least not completely ruled out the possibility of giving it a hearing.

Meanwhile in the House, several bills offering different iterations of cannabis decriminalization have been assigned to the Corrections and Criminal Law committee chaired by Representative Wendy McNamara (R-76). Bills assigned  were introduced by both Republicans and Democrats, including Jim Lucas (HB 1283), John Young (HB 1460), Heath VanNetter and Mara Reardon (HB 1658), Ragen Hatcher (HB 1540) and Dan Forestal (HB 1658).  When Representative McNamara’s press secretary was asked if McNamara would be willing to provide a quote for this article on whether or not she planned to schedule any of these bills for a hearing, the request was responded to with a simple, “Rep. McNamara is unavailable for an interview”. While full legalization and even the implementation of a medical access program are still the source of contention in the Statehouse, considering some form of decriminalization is not completely anathema to legislators. Representative Lehman, while stating up front that he will likely never support full legalization in Indiana, said that the topic of decriminalization in some form has merit and is worth reviewing.

From outside the Statehouse, it can seem as though the issue is in a gridlock that might never be broken until it is too late for some Hoosier to access the therapeutic uses of cannabis or to avoid the criminal consequences of possession, but legislators familiar with Indiana politics behind the scenes are noting an increasing willingness to see this as a serious rather than fringe issue. “I think that there is momentum building, just not as fast as some of us would like,” Representative Shane Lindauer (R-63) told us. Lindauer is Vice Chair of the Public Health committee and co-author of Representative Lucas’ medical bill, HB 1384. “Please continue to encourage members to contact their state Representatives and Senators,” he said, offering advice on how to continue to move this issue forward. “I understand that sometimes it feels like that doesn’t get us anywhere, but I can assure you that if done respectfully, it will register.”

While the decision not to hear bills exists in a political environment that includes lack of support from Governor Holcomb, the current state of cannabis reform in Indiana and the potential progress that could be made this session rests largely on the shoulders of a few committee chairs, none of whom have thus far opted to schedule hearings for the cannabis bills assigned to their committee. 2019 might not be the year of measurable progress (although it is certainly not out of the question), but it is absolutely the year that the General Assembly becomes aware of the fact that this issue can’t be shuffled around forever without adequately addressing it.

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