The Case For Legalizing Marijuana

Last November on Election Day,

Hoosiers watched as Democratic Senator Joe Donnelly tried unsuccessfully to hold off Republican challenger Mike Braun. So much local and national media attention was spent on how the historic Blue Wave bypassed Indiana, it was easy to miss the Green Tsunami that was crashing against our borders.

That same day, our neighbors to the north in Michigan voted to legalize the recreational use of cannabis. To the west, the people of Illinois, a state that already allows medical use of marijuana, elected a new governor, J.B. Pritzker, a Chicago businessman who stumped on a platform of recreational marijuana for his state, dedicating an entire page of his campaign website to explaining his position. Even deep-red Missouri, just across the Mississippi River, overwhelmingly passed a measure making medicinal marijuana legal.

The returns brought the total number of states that allow some form of legal marijuana use to 33, in addition to Washington, D.C., Guam, and Puerto Rico. (Canada also lifted pot prohibition nationwide in October.) While Indiana is not among the tokers, the Hoosier State is nearly surrounded by legal pot, with Michigan and Illinois joining Ohio, which legalized medicinal cannabis in 2016. And the smoke seems to be wafting across state lines. A recent WTHR/Howey Politics Indiana poll found that 73 percent of Hoosiers support the legalization of medical marijuana—including 82 percent of Democrats, 77 percent of independents, and 59 percent of Republicans. (To put that in perspective, in 2017, only 70 percent of Hoosiers supported grocery stores selling cold beer.) Another survey conducted by Ball State University showed that 39 percent of Indiana residents believe that the drug should be legal for recreational use.

Even Republican Governor Eric Holcomb has softened his once-prohibitionist stance on the issue. Until last year, he was publicly opposed to legal weed in any form. But the head of state recently allowed that he was “open-minded” to the idea of medical marijuana, preferring to wait until Washington lifts its nationwide ban or at least hold off until more research can be done to assess the benefits and drawbacks of marijuana use.

The shifting tide ebbs at the steps of the Statehouse, however, where legislators are still bitterly divided on the issue. It’s a multifaceted discussion about the healthcare of Hoosiers, the strength and viability of the state’s economy, and the integrity of the criminal-justice system. Proponents of legal cannabis point to mounting medical evidence that marijuana can be used to treat numerous diseases and improve quality of life for the ill and well alike. They decry law enforcement, courts, and a corrections system bogged down with people, a disproportionate percentage of whom are minorities. They see us missing out on tax revenue from the sale of marijuana and the industry that sprouts up around it. But for every study boosters roll up and pass around, there’s another statistic or anecdote reinforcing the dangers of what many still consider to be a gateway drug in a society plagued by substance abuse, especially opioids. And to many, that public-health hazard outweighs any supposed benefit.

With clear national momentum toward marijuana legalization and the broad and uniquely bipartisan public support, can Indiana lawmakers continue to resist the temptation? What can the Hoosier State learn from those that have gone before it? And what might legal weed here look like? Indiana has passed on grass for decades, but the time is coming when it will be hard to just say no.

If it were

up to Jim Lucas, there would already be a dispensary accessible to every Hoosier of age. The Republican state representative from Seymour wrote House Bill 1106 last winter to legalize medical marijuana, but the legislation never even got a hearing. He spoke enthusiastically about his own experience with legal marijuana in Colorado during an interim study committee hearing held on the issue in October—a feat for a governing body that had previously refused to discuss the matter. The moment was short-lived, though, as the bipartisan committee couldn’t even agree to table the issue for further study.

Lucas refuses to quit. He plans to continue to file such bills, hoping that his colleagues eventually will come around. He says he became interested in the subject in 2017, when the state took steps to outlaw CBD oil, a therapeutic product of marijuana with trace amounts of the psychoactive chemical THC. “Indiana was a laughingstock on CBD,” he says. “And this garbage idea that we need to study it more is a cop-out. The studies are out there. PubMed [an online database of medical research] has 29,000 studies on marijuana. When you look at the research, cannabis makes sense.”

Scientists and researchers have linked cannabis to improved outcomes for a variety of ailments, from Parkinson’s to post-traumatic stress. The American Cancer Society points to recent reports that THC and other cannabinoids kill or slow the growth of certain types of cancer cells in lab tests, and animal studies suggest it might reduce the spread of some forms of cancer. In 2014, when the country was just waking up to its prescription-drug addiction crisis, the Journal of the American Medical Association published findings that the states with medical marijuana saw nearly 25 percent fewer opioid overdose deaths than the rest of the country. (In 2017, 1,852 Hoosiers died from drug overdose, the 14th highest rate in the U.S. and a 22.5-percent jump from 2016.) There is also emerging evidence that medical cannabis lowers the number of opioid prescriptions and is even being used as an effective treatment for opioid addiction. “That pisses me off,” says Lucas. “That reason alone should be enough to eliminate all doubt, especially as Indiana is recognized as being in the middle of an opioid epidemic.”

The medical community’s most widely accepted use of marijuana is for simple pain relief, which can be applied to treatment for almost any disease and chronic condition. It’s why the American Legion Department of Indiana has spoken out strongly in support of the drug to treat veterans suffering lingering injuries, disabilities, and depression. And it’s why many proponents, Lucas included, feel that the ultimate goal should be universal legalization so that even those without a prescription can seek relief.

Besides, Lucas points out, the side effects of marijuana are relatively mild. No one has ever died by overdosing on weed. And the drug has proven to be less addictive than other substances—the National Institute on Drug Abuse says that only 9 percent of people who use marijuana become dependent. “It is a gateway drug,” Lucas has said previously. “It’s a gateway to a better-quality life.”

That’s not to say marijuana is completely harmless. The most effective way to introduce THC to the bloodstream is by smoking it, which can cause respiratory issues and lung infections similar to those in tobacco users. It increases the heart rate, raising the danger of a heart attack. Mentally, the drug causes temporary paranoia, and it inhibits memory and problem-solving. Most importantly, it can impair drivers, just like alcohol.

And while only 9 percent of adult users become addicted, that number nearly doubles to 17 percent when the person starts use while in their teens. Not surprisingly, the top 13 states in terms of the percentage of teens who smoke marijuana are all places where the drug is legalized in some form. However, the same studies show that teen use has gone down in Colorado, Washington, and California, while in Indiana, that number has held relatively steady, most recently coming in at 13.5 percent—almost the same percentage found in California, where medicinal marijuana has been legal since 1996.

Nevertheless, the mere idea of corrupting Indiana’s youth is enough for many opponents of legal cannabis, including Attorney General Curtis Hill. “When you have a state that legalizes, there’s this attitude of harmlessness,” he says. “[But you see] people engaging with use at a much higher level. And they are more likely to use other drugs like heroin and opioids.”

There are studies that back up both of Hill’s assertions. But there is also research that refutes them. That constant war of cherry-picking data and anecdotal evidence is another reason Hill believes Indiana should hold off on following other states off this bridge. He is not a doctor. Nor is Jim Lucas. To date, the Federal Drug Administration has not approved marijuana for any safe consumption. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for legislators to label something medicinal and then that suddenly makes it medicine,” Hill says. “As a country, we have a process for any food or drug. And that’s the process that needs to take root.”

Medicine might not

be Hill’s area of expertise, but as the state’s top law-enforcement officer, criminal justice certainly is—and that’s another front in the war over weed.

Indiana has some of the strictest marijuana laws in the country. Possession of just 30 grams—about the weight of an AA battery—is a class A misdemeanor that can mean a $5,000 fine, up to a year in jail, or both. Getting caught with more than 30 grams or having prior drug convictions is a class D felony that comes with some combination of three years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines. In 2016, there were 14,944 charges of marijuana possession in Indiana, second-most among misdemeanors. Through July 2018, cannabis was first, already with 12,441. Each of these cases ripples through the criminal-justice system, from the arresting officer, to those who process offenders at the jail, to the court system that tries them, to the prison officials and probation officers who track them after adjudication. Last summer, the Indiana State Police, burdened with having to weigh, measure, and analyze every dime bag and joint seized in arrests throughout the state, announced that they were looking into building an additional crime lab to handle the backlog of drug tests. All of this costs more than $30 million annually in taxpayer money.

Additionally, a majority of these cases are handled at the county level by a network of public defenders already swamped with increasing caseloads and dwindling resources. “Prosecutors are spending a lot of time on this, too,” says Bernice Corley, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council. “As a society, is this the best expenditure of our tax dollars to keep us safer?”

Corley also points out that Indiana’s marijuana laws tend to be enforced disproportionately among minorities. A 2013 study by the American Civil Liberties Union found that black Hoosiers were three times as likely to be arrested for possession of cannabis as whites. While African-Americans constitute 9.8 percent of the state’s total population, they make up 27.6 percent of marijuana arrests. Even if the vast majority of these arrests don’t result in prison time, as a popular perception would have it, these laws are indeed used as excuses for police to patrol, stop, and search more people living in poorer, minority communities. “If you read these probable-cause affidavits, the smell of marijuana on or about a person and the sort of furtive movements associated with marijuana use is often listed,” says Michael Moore from the IPDC. “When you read the police reports, it’s an all-too-common reason for searching the car.”

Regardless of whether these targeted people end up in jail, their lives are forever changed. “For anybody who comes into contact with the criminal justice system, it’s likely to have a destabilizing effect on their life,” says Corley. “One night in jail could cost you your job or the custody of your child. Once you’re in the system, it’s like quicksand.”

On the other side of the courtroom aisle, prosecutors like Hill and Dave Powell with the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council argue that simply legalizing marijuana and putting restrictions on it doesn’t eliminate crime. In fact, they look at states that have legalized and see a rise in criminal behavior. Dispensaries are a cash-only business, and due to straggling financial infrastructure to regulate and protect the industry, legal sellers can’t insure their enterprises. Officials in California and Washington state have complained of an uptick in violent crime and robberies that they link to the trade.

Increased production and lax enforcement has proven to be a boon for black-market dealers in marijuana-legal states, too. After all, why pay market price when you can get the same stuff under the table without having to pay tax on it? And when these illicit sellers organize and grow, crime tends to follow. For instance, last November, cops along the Washington state coast busted an illegal marijuana ring run by Chinese nationals, confiscating 32,000 pot plants, 26 vehicles, and $400,000 in cash and gold.

More prevalent is the increase of impaired drivers on the road in these marijuana-legal states. Last October, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety released findings that car crashes were up by as much as 6 percent between 2012 and 2017 in states that had legalized recreational marijuana. Between 2007 and 2014, the National Highway and Traffic Safety Association says, the number of weekend nighttime drivers testing positive for THC spiked by 4 percent. And this, too, has a cost as administrators try to determine exactly what constitutes chemical intoxication for marijuana and how best to measure these levels in the field. “We have very little data in terms of how marijuana affects the brain,” says Chris Daniels, traffic safety director for IPAC. “It’s putting us in a trick bag on how you prosecute those crimes. If you smoke it, it can be in your system for a week. THC stores in your fat. Some people who can’t metabolize it show impairment, while others who have it in their blood don’t.”

Of course, with all of the traffic coming back and forth from Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan, Indiana troopers will most likely have to figure out how to combat the drug on the road regardless. “What worries us is that Hoosiers who live on the borders will think they can go to a neighboring state, smoke, and come back and that’ll be OK,” says Powell. “That’s not OK. If they’re impaired, they could crash and kill someone. Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio aren’t going to care.”

If Indiana

legislators continue to ignore the polls in favor of legalization, if they are not swayed by the swelling buzz of cannabis’s medical benefits, or the chance to remove some of the resin gumming up the criminal-justice system, then perhaps pragmatic Hoosier representatives will put this in their pipes: Legal marijuana is a billion-dollar growth industry.

Last year, California raked in $2.75 billion in recreational marijuana tax revenue. Colorado and Washington followed with $1.56 billion and $1 billion, respectively. Even states with just medical marijuana turned a profit. Michigan pulled in $633 million, and Illinois $91.1 million.

And that’s just tax on the drug itself. Along with this comes the private businesses, the growers, the distributors, and the retailers—businesses that pay additional taxes and create jobs. It’s an industry that Rep. Lucas believes Indiana is uniquely suited for. The state’s geography makes it a transportation and distribution hub, and it’s already one of the country’s top states for agriculture research thanks to Purdue University. What’s more, Indiana University has the health and science infrastructure to take the reins in the field of medical research. “If I was leading this place, I’d make Indiana the No. 1 state in the nation for marijuana research,” says Lucas. “There’s no reason not to.”

AG Hill can think of a couple. He points to the rise in black-market marijuana, meaning the governments in legal states aren’t getting their fair share of revenue. And the cataloging and regulation costs money, too. As does the crime that he maintains follows cannabis wherever it’s decriminalized. “I worry that we just want to go along with other states,” Hill says. “Don’t worry about Indiana getting left behind in the field of marijuana. We don’t have to jump off the bridge just because our friend Johnny did.”

Of course, if Indiana stands on edge of this bridge long enough, waiting for FDA approval or a federal repeal of prohibition, Hoosiers might not have to worry about it. They can just get a contact high from the cloud wafting in from our neighbors.

Illustration by Curt Merlo

Read more from our March 2019
Marijuana feature here.