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Cannabis decriminalization takes historic step with hearing, will go no further this year

By Brandon Smith, IPB News | Published on in Agriculture, Business, Crime, Government, Politics
Keith Johnson, right, is an Indiana hemp producer. He sits in the audience during a committee hearing at the Statehouse on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023 for a bill to decriminalize possession of two ounces or less of cannabis. (Brandon Smith/IPB News)

A bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of cannabis got its first ever committee hearing at the Statehouse Wednesday. But that’s as far as the issue will likely go this year.

The bill, HB 1297, is pretty simple: having two ounces or less of cannabis would no longer be a crime for those age 21 or older.

Keith Johnson is an Indiana hemp producer. He said he helps supply people, especially veterans, who have medical conditions like Parkinson’s and cancer with legal products like CBD.

He said he knows cannabis would help them more.

“These people are very valuable to us as Hoosiers, very valuable to me,” Johnson said. “And I would like to see decrim happen, just out of a just a purely a position of compassion and good conscience and caring for those who’ve served us.”

Katie Wiley is with Stash Ventures, a cannabis business. She supported the bill but said decriminalization doesn’t go far enough.

“If we fail to couple decriminalization with a legalized cannabis market to protect our Hoosier constituents from the black market, then I think we’ve probably failed to address the core, root issue,” Wiley said.

Midwest Hemp Council and Growing Together Indiana leader Justin Swanson said there are public health benefits to regulating cannabis.

“In states that provide a medical and adult use market, you have older age at first cannabis use, fewer days of past month use for those 16 to 20 years old and fewer days of driving under the influence of cannabis in the past month,” Swanson said.

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Former state health director Dr. Richard Feldman represented the Indiana Academy of Family Physicians. He said the group does not support recreational cannabis use. But it does support decriminalizing possession of small amounts.

“Marijuana is not a hard drug,” Feldman said. “It’s not a narcotic and certainly safer than alcohol and tobacco. It should be legally treated accordingly.”

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce, prosecutors and the State Police oppose the bill. State Police legal counsel Barbara Rosenberg said there are traffic safety concerns.

“And we are concerned that, with more people using marijuana and then getting on our roads, that that will also increase fatalities and accidents on the roadway,” Rosenberg said.

Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council’s Brock Patterson said his organization will always oppose any measure to decriminalize cannabis.

“Twenty-seven states and D.C., at some point, have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana. Of those 27, at least 17 have passed full legalization since that time,” Patterson said. “There is a slippery slope. Once we open this door, we really can’t ever go back.”

Indiana Chamber of Commerce Vice President Ashton Eller said decriminalization or legalization creates confusion with employers, employees and job applicants over drug testing of employees.

For example, he noted that federal contractors are required to drug test their employees for cannabis, regardless of whether it’s legal in the state.

“The General Assembly will have to deal with the societal costs that are being discussed and ultimately the impact to the workforce employers will have to navigate through this process,” Eller said.

House committee chair Wendy McNamara (R-Evansville) said the bill will not get a vote this session.

Brandon is our Statehouse bureau chief. Contact him at bsmith@ipbs.org or follow him on Twitter at @brandonjsmith5.