Renewed Indiana pot legalization push faces GOP opposition

Tom Davies
Associated Press

Indianapolis — A renewed push for Indiana to join more than two-thirds of states with some form of legalized marijuana use appears to face the same roadblock from Statehouse Republicans who have opposed such a step for many years.

Legislative Democrats and the state Democratic Party united this week urging approval of marijuana legalization during the legislative session that starts in January, arguing that it could benefit those wanting to use it for medical purposes, create new jobs and become an additional state tax revenue source.

The Republican-dominated Legislature has not taken any action on bills submitted over the past decade for allowing medical marijuana or removing criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of the drug, even as recreational marijuana sales have won approval in Michigan and Illinois and medical use is allowed in Ohio.

Legalization advocates haven’t yet changed the minds of legislative leaders, who reject arguments that Indiana is losing money to neighboring states and point to pot still being illegal under federal law.

“I think when you make the argument about having that substantial a public policy change just because you’re trying to chase dollars makes no sense to me, so I’m in the same place I’ve been” Republican House Speaker Todd Huston said.

House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, speaks during the annual Organization Day at the Statehouse, Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, in Indianapolis.

Support for marijuana legalization has grown across the country, underscoring a national shift as more states have legalized it for medical or recreational use.

A Gallup survey conducted earlier this year found more than two in three Americans supported legalizing marijuana, maintaining a record-high reached a year earlier. A 2018 survey by Ball State University’s Bowen Center for Public Affairs found about 80% of Indiana adults favoring medical marijuana use and 40% supportive of legal recreational use, with just 16% backing the state’s current total ban.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 36 states allow medical cannabis use, while 18 states and the District of Columbia allow nonmedical, adult use.

Indiana Democratic Chairman Mike Schmuhl said Republicans were losing their “economic common sense” by opposing legalization steps, potentially leaving the state without any way of overseeing marijuana businesses if legalized by the federal government.

“Hoosiers have seen the impact that recreational and medicinal cannabis use has made on the states around us and not only are they contributing to neighboring states’ economies, Indiana is now on the verge of losing out altogether,” Schmuhl said.

Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb has long maintained that he will oppose any legalization as long as the federal government classifies marijuana as a dangerous drug. Holcomb spokeswoman Erin Murphy said this week “at this point nothing has changed.”

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb speaks with reporters during the Indiana Technology and Innovation Association conference in Fishers, Ind., on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021.

The 2020 Democratic candidates for governor and state attorney general both embraced some form of marijuana legalization, but the issue didn’t gain much attention during their unsuccessful campaigns.

Democratic Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., who is seeking to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Todd Young in next year’s election, pledged to would work toward legalizing marijuana nationwide as he acknowledged earlier this month to smoking pot at two recent Grateful Dead concerts in Chicago.

Republican state Senate Majority Leader Mark Messmer of Jasper points to issues such as banks shunning money from the cannabis industry, fearing it could expose them to legal trouble under federal laws.

“It’s an issue that does poll well with the public but there’s still conflicting federal statutes that make it a little difficult to bring forward,” Messmer said.

Democratic Rep. Vanessa Summers of Indianapolis said Indiana’s marijuana prohibition also continues to result in disproportionate arrests of Black and Hispanic people.

“Legalizing marijuana is not only the popular thing to do — it is the right thing to do,” Summers said. “Continued criminalization hurts us all and goes against our professed ideals of freedom, liberty and justice.”