Indiana Cannabis Reform Faces Uphill Struggle

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Indiana Statehouse Indiana
Indiana Statehouse Photo: Shutterstock

Indiana cannabis reform faces an uphill battle – despite the fact that a recent poll showed that 56 percent of adult residents favor full legalization

Indiana state lawmakers have filed several bills that would reform the deep-red state’s harsh cannabis laws. But despite majority voter support for full legalization, these more modest measures could face an obstacle in Governor Eric Holcomb (R), an opponent of most reforms, if they even get that far.

The most impactful cannabis bill in this year’s session is Senate Bill 70, sponsored by Senator Mike Bohacek (R), which would decriminalize possession of up to 1 ounce of cannabis statewide. Currently, only Marion County (including Indianapolis) has decriminalized cannabis. Anywhere else, possession of any amount is a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum $1,000 fine and 180 days in jail. According to NORML, you can still even face a maximum $5,000 fine and one year in prison for low-level possession, if you have a prior drug conviction. Possession of over 30 grams can mean a felony charge.

Current marijuana enforcement, as in other states, is heavily skewed toward Indiana’s Black residents—about 10 percent of its population. A Black person in Indiana was more than three times likelier than a white resident to be arrested for marijuana possession from 2010-2018, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Cannabis-possession arrests made up 45 percent of all drug arrests in the state in that period.

Sen. Bohacek explained to Filter that his decriminalization bill is inspired by the reality that neighboring Illinois and Michigan have fully legalized, Ohio has medical cannabis, and Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear (D) just approved limited protections for medical cannabis patients who legally purchase in other states.

“Most of the states around us have some level of legalization,” he said. “And it was important to me that we don’t have people coming in from other states, with a legally procured substance, coming into our state and having it be illegal, and potentially being charged with a misdemeanor or felony.”

“This has always been a tough issue in Indiana. We are a very conservative state.”

But Bohacek admits that Indiana cannabis reform faces an uphill battle—despite the fact that a recent poll showed that 56 percent of adult residents favor full legalization. Regarding Gov. Holcomb, “From what I see, he’s open to some sort of decriminalization. I don’t say he supports it because I don’t believe he supports it, but he’s open to the conversation.”

Holcomb told ABC Indianapolis he is interested in decriminalizing low-level possession, saying “[I’m] very happy to discuss that. I do not believe that simple possession at certain limits should derail someone’s life.”

But first, the bill may struggle to even get out of committee in the Republican-dominated Senate and House, let alone pass a floor vote. Reforming cannabis laws will require repeated and stubborn efforts over a long time before the dam breaks.

“This has always been a tough issue in Indiana,” Bohacek said. “We are a very conservative state, and this has been an issue that’s struggled in the past. Certainly the more we talk about things, the better chance it has to get some traction.”

In addition to that bill, Representative Jake Teshka (R) has filed a bill which would legalize adult-use and medical cannabis—but only if the federal government legalizes first. Despite a federal legalization bill passing a Democrat-controlled House twice, it has so far gone nowhere in the Senate—and with Republicans now controlling the House, the prospects for federal legalization have weakened.

Gov. Holcomb opposes legalization in any form, even medical—though he claims his main reason is simply because it’s illegal federally.

Indiana lawmakers have filed other bills making smaller changes to cannabis laws. Like Bohacek’s Senate Bill 82, which would protect vehicle operators who are not intoxicated if their blood tests positive for cannabis. And House Bill 1065, which would create a “cannabis compliance advisory committee” to regulate hemp products in the state.

Gov. Holcomb opposes legalization in any form, even medical—though he claims his main reason is simply because it’s illegal federally. He has said that if federal law changed, he would look at “all the positive or adverse impacts it would have.”

He even refused to grant clemency to people held in state prison for marijuana charges. After President Biden’s executive order pardoning people with federal marijuana convictions, Holcomb retorted that Biden was working “around” Congress, and that federal marijuana law remained unchanged. “Until these federal law changes occur, I can’t in good conscience consider issuing blanket pardons for all such offenders,” he said.

But the governor has spoken favorably of the state’s limited sealing process for low-level marijuana convictions, saying, “I do agree that many of these offenses should not serve as a life sentence after an individual has served their time.” Under state law, misdemeanor convictions can be expunged five years after a sentence is completed—but only if you have had no convictions since then and have paid off any outstanding fines and fees.