Another push for medical pot in Indiana not likely to work

Odds against Indiana legislators backing medical marijuana

Posted: Sunday, January 3, 2016 5:00 am | Updated: 5:14 pm, Sun Jan 3, 2016.

By Jeff Parrott South Bend Tribune

Posted on Jan 3, 2016

The husband and father was near death from Crohn’s Disease in 2009….

Over a three-month period, his weight dropped from about 175 pounds to 117 pounds. He had his large intestine, colon and rectum removed, and he was largely confined to his bed or a chair.

He had no appetite and was surviving largely on IV fluid. He was so worried about accidentally jarring the stapled incision in his abdomen that his muscles ached from the constant tension.

Marijuana had just been legalized for medical use that year. At his wife’s suggestion, he tried smoking some, first illegally because he wanted to see whether it helped him before he went through the process of applying for a legal permit.

“It was amazing,” recalled the man, who lives in Michigan, just a few miles from the Indiana line. “Instantaneous. I could feel my shoulders drop and my body relax. In less than 10 minutes, I was feeling the urge in my stomach to eat. I started feeling better. I ate more. Started gaining more weight.”

It’s stories like his that have prompted two Democratic lawmakers, Sen. Karen Tallian of Ogden Dunes and Rep. Sue Errington of Muncie, to sponsor medical marijuana bills in the Indiana General Assembly session that starts Monday. Indiana would join 23 other states in legalizing marijuana and become part of a national debate over the medical merits.

The odds of success for the legislators, however, are not great. Bills they introduced in the 2015 session died in committee for lack of a hearing. With Republicans in firm control of both houses, Tallian isn’t overly optimistic 2016 will be any different.

Sen. Joe Zakas, R-Granger, echoes the sentiments of many in his party. He stops short of disputing that marijuana can provide relief for some medical problems, but he thinks that would be overshadowed by a corresponding increase in recreational use and abuse.

"I would listen to the arguments as to its medical use," Zakas said. "I just haven’t heard a convincing argument on that yet. I want to hear the evidence from solid sources that it’s a viable medical tool."

Tallian, a criminal defense attorney who thinks it’s wasteful to jail people for smoking pot when recreational use is now legal in four states, had for the past three years introduced bills to decriminalize recreational marijuana use. It would still be illegal but possessing small amounts would be treated as an infraction, similar to a traffic ticket. Her bills have never received a hearing.

In 2015, Tallian changed tack, authoring a bill to legalize medical marijuana by creating an Indiana Department of Marijuana Enforcement that would regulate it much like pharmaceuticals, in a pilot program for people suffering a specific list of ailments.

Her bill also would have allowed Indiana universities and pharmaceutical companies to conduct research on medicinal use. Errington introduced a companion measure in the House.

In the coming session, Tallian and Errington said they’ll introduce bills for both decriminalization and medical use. Tallian said she would be willing to drop the decriminalization component if it meant finally getting a hearing for medical use.

“We move by inches down there, so I’d take every inch I could get,” she said. “I have a lot of votes over there on the Republican side if I could just get a hearing.”

Last session, her bill was assigned to the Health and Provider Services Committee, where chair Patricia Miller, R-Indianapolis, declined to give it a hearing. Miller was unavailable for comment.

“Pat Miller kept saying, ‘We don’t have enough proof yet” that marijuana offers medicinal benefits, Tallian said. “That’s because we haven’t had the opportunity to do research.”

Her bill has yet to be assigned a committee for the 2016 session.

‘A buzz or a high’

Asked to identify a supportive Republican, Tallian mentioned Sen. Jim Tomes of Poseyville, a small, rural town outside Evansville. Tomes this year introduced a bill to legalize the growing of hemp, a form of marijuana that lacks THC, the drug that gives marijuana smokers a high.

In addition to a variety of industrial textile uses, hemp can produce cannabis oil, which has a well-documented record of alleviating seizures in children with epilepsy.

Tomes said parents of children with epilepsy have increasingly turned to him for their cause.

“This is extremely different than what Sen. Tallian is trying to do,” said Tomes, who doesn’t support legalizing medical marijuana.

“I understand there are certain applications and I’m not taking that away from anyone,” he added. “But it also has the ability to give people a buzz or a high. That’s a factor I just cannot support.”

The concept has found more traction in other states. Illinois recently launched a Medical Cannabis Pilot Program, allowing 13 licensed dispensaries to open around the state. Sales began in November to about 3,900 licensed patients.

Kentucky last year became one of 18 states that allows use or research of cannabis oil for seizure treatment.

Ohio voters last month overwhelming rejected a ballot initiative to legalize recreational use, but observers have attributed that more to the fact that the right to produce and distribute marijuana would have been concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy producers.

In the coming year, recreational marijuana may be on the ballot in 11 states, including Michigan, according to Ballotpedia, a website that tracks ballots issues nationwide. Another five states might consider medical pot initiatives.

Sen. John Broden, D-South Bend, said he isn’t ready to commit to supporting medical marijuana, but he hopes it will at least receive a committee hearing in the coming session.

“For me, it’s very important that it be very narrowly tailored so it does address medical issues, it’s administered by the health care community or by a doctor,” Broden said. “I’m certainly open to hearing about it.”

Conducting committee hearings would allow testimony from officials in other states that have legalized medical marijuana, such as law enforcement officials in Michigan.

“If these other states have had positive experiences or at least not had negative experiences … that would be critical for me,” he said.

When asked whether she knew of any doctors who wish they could legally prescribe marijuana, Errington pointed to Dr. Bruce Ippel, a 66-year-old family practice physician near Muncie. Over his 40 years as a doctor, Ippel said, many of his patients have reported using marijuana for relief from ailments such as headaches and migraines, as well as appetite stimulation for people with cancer and chronic intestinal illness from diabetes.

He isn’t sure if medical marijuana will become legal in Indiana in his lifetime. But while admitting he’s cynical, Ippel thinks Indiana lawmakers eventually will legalize marijuana so that they can tax it and grow state revenue. Colorado collected almost $70 million in marijuana taxes last fiscal year, nearly double the $42 million collected from alcohol taxes, according to Time magazine.

Ippel noted that even in Indiana, society has grown more tolerant of pot.

"The landscape has changed," he said. "Twenty years ago, anyone using marijuana was at high risk of being locked up. Indiana law enforcement agencies have largely backed off common users. I think that’s a change in the last six to eight years that’s been a benefit."

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