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‘Island of prohibition:’ Other red states have legalized marijuana. Why not Indiana?
- Indiana is one of 12 states that hasn't yet legalized marijuana either for medical or recreational purposes.
- Just 15% of Hoosiers are opposed to any type of marijuana legalization, according to a Ball State University study.
- Of the Republican gubernatorial candidates who responded to State Affairs, only Brad Chambers left the door open for potential marijuana legalization.
Indiana is surrounded by states that have legalized marijuana in some form, but the likelihood of that happening here in the near future is slim.
As multiple lawmakers put it, Indiana is an “island of prohibition.”
There are signs of movement: Lawmakers will study the impact of marijuana legalization in an interim committee next week, and last legislative session legislators heard testimony on a bill to decriminalize marijuana for the first time.
But the committee chair never called the bill for a vote, and proponents of legalization are all but certain legislation won’t move when the upcoming legislative session starts in January.
State Affairs talked to lawmakers, political experts and lobbyists to get a better picture of why Indiana is one of 12 states that hasn’t yet legalized the substance in any fashion, while some other red-leaning states have. They pointed to a lack of direct democracy in Indiana, the viewpoints of leaders at the Statehouse, and a generational gap between the House and Senate.
Democratic-leaning states initially took the lead on marijuana legalization, but over time other Republican-leaning states have started legalizing it for medical purposes too. That includes states like Indiana with Republican trifectas, such as North Dakota, South Dakota, West Virginia and Mississippi.
More than half the states that legalized cannabis have one thing in common: They left the decision to legalize it either medically or recreationally up to the voters themselves.
There are no citizen-led ballot initiatives in Indiana, which means all of the power lies within the Indiana General Assembly. The only initiatives Hoosiers can vote for are those that two separately elected General Assemblies pass to put on the ballot.
Typically state legislatures are behind state opinion on issues, said Chad Kinsella, director of the Bowen Center for Public Affairs at Ball State. That means states with a citizen-led ballot option can get controversial measures on the books more quickly.
That’s also why Hoosiers likely will never get the opportunity to vote on the legality of abortions.
“If the state legislature doesn't move, then nothing moves,” Kinsella said. “You can collect signatures all day and nothing happens.”
Next door in Ohio, which has a Republican supermajority in both chambers like Indiana, voters will decide whether or not to legalize recreational marijuana this November.
Why isn’t there more movement in the legislature?
A lot of the pushback in Indiana is coming from the top.
Governors are considered weak in Indiana: Their vetoes can be overridden by a simple majority. But they still have sway within the legislature.
“The question becomes, ‘Is this an issue that legislators would be willing to override the veto of a governor of their own party?’” said North Liberty Republican Rep. Jake Teshka, who has pushed for legalization.
Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb has long said he opposes legalization, citing concerns about both its legality at the federal level and the impact on public safety and health.
“My thoughts haven’t changed one ounce,” Holcomb told State Affairs earlier this month. “If it is ushered through the proper FDA process for medicinal purposes I'm all for learning, just like for any other drug … I'm all for that.”
Likewise, House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, and Senate Majority Leader Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, have voiced concerns about legalizing marijuana. During the last legislative session, Huston said he wanted to “continue to seek more information.”
Those leaders appoint committee chairs, which means they have outsized influence on which legislation gets a committee hearing or a vote.
Rep. Heath VanNatter, R-Kokomo, predicted the House is nearing 50% of support from Republicans as viewpoints have changed and new representatives were elected.
“I was opposed to it 13 years ago, and over the years I've visited other states and saw what was going on, and visited the facilities that produce it and sell it, and I've learned a lot about it,” VanNatter said. “I've changed my views on it, and I think more and more people are doing that.”
There are fewer Republican proponents in the Senate than the House. Perhaps nothing shows that more clearly than this: There was no second author on the bill Sen. Kyle Walker, R-Lawrence, filed last year to legalize cannabis.
“There's probably more support than there's ever been among legislators, but there's still a tremendous amount of hesitancy,” Walker told State Affairs. “Some are philosophically opposed. Some are opposed because they believe that it would be harmful to society in general. There are some that are opposed because it's federally illegal.”
So why is the Senate more hesitant? Teshka said it’s likely a generational issue. Typically, senators skew older than House representatives. In the House, the younger lawmakers have driven the momentum. The House is also by design more susceptible to the whims of the people since representatives are reelected every two years, rather than every four years.
There are other factors at play as well that impact the ability of marijuana legislation to move in both chambers, including voter apathy on the issue.
“The intensity is not there. This isn’t the issue that folks are calling their legislators on,” Teshka said. “Even if it’s polling really high, [if] legislators aren’t hearing about it in their town halls or in their email inboxes, the urgency is not going to be there to get something done.”
Historically, there’s also been opposition from some influential lobbyists, including the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.
Where the gubernatorial candidates stand on the issue
The future of cannabis legalization in Indiana could hinge on which gubernatorial candidate gets elected in 2024. Republicans specifically face a crowded, well-funded field, with multiple credible candidates.
Of the Republican gubernatorial candidates reached by State Affairs, only Brad Chambers, the former secretary of commerce, left the door open for potential marijuana legalization.
"I haven’t spent much time yet on this issue,” Chambers said in a statement, “but as we hear more about the potential of reclassification at the federal level, I think we should evaluate the potential positive and negative impacts, learn from what other states have experienced, and determine the best path forward for a healthy and successful Indiana.”
Former Attorney General Curtis Hill, Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch and businessman Eric Doden said they opposed legalization due to concerns ranging from public health to safety. Sen. Mike Braun declined to comment and Jamie Reitenour did not respond to a request for comment.
Jennifer McCormick, the former superintendent of public instruction and Democratic gubernatorial candidate, said she supported legalizing marijuana.
“It is time Indiana listened to the majority of Hoosiers and developed a legal, well-regulated cannabis market,” McCormick said in an emailed statement. “This opportunity would boost our economy by welcoming an industry proven to add millions of dollars to the state budget — just as 37 other states have demonstrated.”
Why it matters
The general public, regardless of political party, supports some form of legalization. Only 15% of Hoosiers don’t support either medicinal or recreational marijuana legalization, according to Ball State’s 2022 Hoosier Survey. Among Republicans, that number increases to just under 21%.
Kevin Brinegar, president and CEO of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, said the Chamber has based its opposition on research, not public opinion.
“Part of the reason for opposition is the Food and Drug Administration has not approved marijuana for any valid medical purpose, and so until they do, we won't even consider a position of support or even neutrality,” Brinegar said. “Our concern is the impact on the workplace, impact on traffic accidents, which impacts insurance rates and all that.”
The Chamber pointed to a report from Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a group focused on educating consumers on “the harms of marijuana legalization.” In its report, the group shared statistics on the increase in calls to poison control in some states that have legalized marijuana, the frequency in which road deaths in Colorado involve marijuana and the percent of marijuana consumers who have a marijuana use disorder.
Proponents of legalization, though, say some states have simply legalized cannabis incorrectly by taxing it too heavily, leading to a continuation of the black market. Indiana can do it better, they say. Plus, they say Hoosiers are already using marijuana whether it's legal or not.
“We're spending all of this money to put people away in jail and put their lives on hold,” said Sen. Rodney Pol, a Democrat from Chesterton who has authored legislation on the topic. “We're spending money to do that to our population, and just across each border the other states are collecting hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue.”
In fiscal year 2022, state cannabis taxes generated a total of $2.9 billion in taxes across 11 states.
The Interim Study Committee on Commerce and Economic Development will hear from experts regarding marijuana legalization on Nov. 1. The committee will issue a final report that could contain recommendations for legislation on the topic.
Regardless of whether the committee issues recommendations, multiple lawmakers are considering filing legislation to legalize marijuana during the upcoming 2024 legislative session.
No bills are expected to move.
Still, Justin Swanson, a Bose McKinney & Evans partner who lobbies for pro-cannabis groups, sees any progress as a win. Indiana has taken some baby steps, first by legalizing Cannabidiol oil, which is a low-THC product derived from cannabis plants.
Swanson particularly viewed last year’s committee hearing on a bill to decriminalize marijuana as a victory.
“The legislative process is designed to be slow moving, so we've kind of learned to redefine success as we go on this issue,” Swanson said. “That [committee hearing] was a huge win. And,frankly, I think it kind of marked the beginning of the end of prohibition in Indiana.”
Check out our summary on TikTok.
State Affairs reporter Tom Davies contributed to this article.
Header image: (Credit: Brittney Phan)
INDIANAPOLIS — Last August, Anne Hathaway’s phone lit up with a call from Gov. Eric Holcomb. Nearly a quarter-century before, Hathaway had recruited the future governor to run for an Indiana House seat in the only race he lost.
With the resignation of Indiana Republican Chairman Kyle Hupfer in hand, Holcomb asked Hathaway to lead the Indiana Republican Party, and in doing so was tapping the first women to hold the role.
For the past 15 years, Hathaway had led the Richard G. Lugar Excellence in Public Service Series, an organization inspired by U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar and created by Teresa Lubbers and Judy Singleton to develop a gender bench for the GOP.
“I encourage women every day to take a risk, be willing to lose; go out of their comfort zones and run for office or serve on a board or commission,” said Hathaway, who serves as Indiana’s national committeewoman on the Republican National Committee, during a recent, exclusive Howey Politics/State Affairs interview.
“I couldn’t continue to do that unless I was willing to do that myself, willing to take the risk, willing to lead by example,” she said, adding, “When the call came for me, I jumped. Yeah, I’m in. Let’s go.”
Holcomb said in making this historic nomination: “Here are several key reasons I believe Anne is the right person at the right time for this role. Anne’s resume of service to the Republican Party is as extensive as just about anyone’s in the country, having served with distinction at the local, state and national levels throughout her entire career. Furthermore, with experience in running campaigns at every level of government, she has the knowledge and relationships to not only keep our party moving forward, but to continue to take it to the next level.”
Hathaway’s roots are in the tiny Illinois town of Galva just north of Peoria. After graduating from high school with a class of 77, and then from the University of Illinois, she decided to spend a year in Washington, D.C., where she began as a typist at the Department of Treasury.
Hathaway served in the White House as assistant and director of scheduling for former Vice President Dan Quayle, was program director for the 2012 Republican National Convention, and was executive director of the Indiana House Republican Campaign
Following Hathaway’s resume is a lesson in stewardship and power.
“Sen. Lugar would be more excited about me being state chair than I am just because, Judy Singleton and Teresa Lubbers were ecstatic,” said Hathaway.
She now helms the party at (or nearing) its historic apex. The Indiana GOP holds all the state constitutional offices, nine of 11 congressional seats, maintains General Assembly super majorities, more than 90% of county offices, and as of the municipal elections earlier this month, 76 mayors. If a Republican is elected governor in 11 months, the party will increase its historic dominance to five consecutive terms.
Hathaway will lead the party through the five-way gubernatorial primary. Following next June’s Indiana Republican Convention, she will head to Milwaukee, where Republican National Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel tabbed her to head the RNC’s Arrangements Committee.
Hathaway has committed to serve only through the May primary. “At that time, she will work together with the gubernatorial nominee and you all to decide who is best to finish out the remainder of the term,” said Holcomb.
Asked if there was a chance to continue as chair beyond the May election, she said, “That’s a conversation to be had.
“I have agreed to stay at least through the state convention. I believe the gubernatorial nominee should have his or her own political partner here. I’m just focused on the time between now and then, she said.
Senior reporter and columnist Brian Howey sat down for a 45-minute, wide-ranging interview with Hathaway where she discussed what it means to make history as the first female state Republican chair, how her work at the Lugar Series prepared her for this new role, the Republican party’s diversity programs and other topics. Read the full conversation on State Affairs Pro here.
Gov. Holcomb taps Boone County Council president to serve out remainder of Comptroller Tera Klutz’s term
Republican Elise Nieshalla, president of the Boone County Council, will serve out the remaining three years of State Comptroller Tera Klutz’s term.
Gov. Eric Holcomb announced the appointment of Nieshalla, a real estate investor, on Tuesday. As state auditor, Nieshalla will oversee the balancing of Indiana’s checkbooks and payment of all state employees.
“My appreciation runs deep for the strong financial standing of our state and the integrity in which the State Comptroller’s Office is run,” Nieshalla said in a statement. “It is truly my privilege to receive Gov. Holcomb’s appointment to serve our great state and local units of government by upholding the highest standards of fiscal responsibility and offering tremendous Hoosier service.”
Earlier this year Klutz announced she would resign Nov. 30, roughly a year after she was reelected. Klutz, who was first appointed by Holcomb in 2017, is the fourth state auditor in a row to not finish their term, enabling the sitting governor to choose a replacement.
Nieshalla was already well-known within Republican circles. She previously ran for treasurer in 2022 against three other Republicans, losing to current Treasurer Daniel Elliott at the state Republican convention. At the time, the convention loss of Nieshalla and other Republicans more closely aligned with the party establishment was seen as a rebuke of the Holcomb wing of the party.
Nieshalla, who lives in Zionsville, is also president of the Indiana County Councils Association and the chairwoman of the Association of Indiana Counties’ 2023 Legislative Committee. She has a bachelor’s degree from Oral Roberts University and a master’s degree from Indiana University.
She’ll be sworn in on Dec. 1 and will serve until at least the 2026 election when voters will have the option to choose the next state comptroller.
Holcomb praised Nieshalla in an emailed statement.
“Elise is a dedicated and proven public servant who has committed much of her professional life to bettering her community through service,” Holcomb said. “She has shared her financial expertise to help steer and shape the bright future of Boone County which gives me great confidence she’ll do the same serving Hoosiers as our next State Comptroller.”
On Tuesday, Indiana lawmakers returned to the Statehouse for Organization Day, the ceremonial start to the legislative session, ahead of what legislative leaders are saying should be a low-key, short session.
“We’ll probably take a pretty measured approach on what we address … , maybe fine tune some things,” House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, said during an Indiana Chamber of Commerce legislative panel on Monday. “Short sessions are supposed to be for emergency items only.”
Not only will 2024 be a non-budget-writing legislative session mandated to end by mid-March, but this session also falls in the midst of a heated Republican gubernatorial primary. There’s no obvious assumed winner who can lead policy discussions ahead of the election, nor has Gov. Eric Holcomb laid the groundwork for any major policy changes in his last legislative session.
Plus, recent criminal corruption charges against a former lawmaker — and the potential for other lawmakers to be charged in connection with the case — has put a cloud over the Indiana General Assembly.
Still, some minor bills are expected to move, and something can always pop up. Here’s a breakdown of some of the issues State Affairs expects to be debated, and three that probably won’t move.
Both Huston and Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, said they want to limit the situations in which schools allow third graders to advance to fourth grade when they fail the IREAD-3, the state’s reading comprehension test.
During the 2021-2022 school year, more than 18% of students failed the test because they were not reading at a third grade level.
“When you pass that kid on, and they aren’t prepared to succeed, you’re not doing that kid a favor,” Huston said, following his Organization Day speech in which he laid out his caucus’ priorities.
Huston’s goal is to make Indiana the No. 1 state in the nation for third grade reading proficiency by 2027.
Democrats cautioned that it may be too soon to make major changes to how IREAD scores are handled in Indiana. During the 2023 legislative session, lawmakers passed a science of reading bill.
“We need to make sure that schools have the opportunity to train their teachers, to implement these strategies across the board before we start throwing new legislative hurdles in the way,” said Sen. Andrea Hunley, D-Indianapolis. “We have to give [new recommendations] time to work before we start, say, failing all children or retaining a whole class of children.”
Continuing to re-think K-12 education
Last legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill seeking to expand work-based learning in high school, but Huston emphasized during his Organization Day speech that legislators can still do more to transform the K-12 school system.
Huston said House Republicans will push to allow state money typically set aside for students pursuing a college education to be used to obtain certificates and certifications for “high demand, high wage jobs.”
“We must continue to adjust the way we think about K-12 education in order to meet the needs of all students, including those who aren’t interested in pursuing a two-or four-year degree,” Huston said. “Let’s use this session to build on skill and work-based learning, and let’s align our funding to this goal.”
This fall the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce took a delegation of Indiana lawmakers and others to Switzerland to see how the country’s apprenticeship program operates. Expect more changes in the coming years that would enable Indiana’s K-12 system to more closely mirror that of Switzerland’s.
Child care access
During his own Organization Day speech, Bray emphasized a need to expand affordable child care options for young children.
“Day care is a constant challenge from the Ohio River to the Michigan line, trying to find day care at all if you can find it and whether it’s affordable,” Bray said.
He pointed to a legislative study committee on the topic which recommended some minor reforms to the system, such as lowering the age requirement for working unassisted in an infant or toddler classroom to age 18 from 21 and requiring the state to review how it can streamline child care regulations to increase availability.
Don’t expect lawmakers to throw more money at the child care system since 2024 isn’t a budget-writing year.
Health care costs
Lawmakers passed multiple bills during the 2023 legislative session aimed at cutting health care costs, ranging from limiting physician noncompete agreements to creating benchmarks for how high hospital prices in the largest hospital systems should be.
But Bray said he expects lawmakers to offer more legislation on the topic this year in order to help drive down costs long term.
A legislative study committee on the topic backed recommendations to require more disclosures by insurance companies on their “prior authorization” process for medical care, as well as require medical providers to give lawmakers a six-month notice for mergers or acquisitions.
It’s unclear whether legislation on water access will actually pass either chamber, but the topic is almost certain to come up in discussions.
Earlier this year, the Indiana Economic Development Corp. announced plans to pump water from the Wabash River aquifer to the LEAP district in Lebanon. Tippecanoes citizens have been vocal in their opposition to the plan, and just this week the Tippecanoe County Commissioners voted to put a moratorium on high volume water exports.
Legislative leaders say they want to avoid legislating on the issue until they get more data. The Indiana Finance Authority and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce are studying the issue.
“We’re not going to take any other steps until we have an opportunity to study to make sure that there’s ample water for the projects that we’re trying to bring into the state of Indiana,” Bray said, “and we understand just how much is too much to take away from a particular community.”
But, even if leadership would rather wait to address the elephant in the room, lawmakers are almost certain to file legislation.
Issues that won’t move: Gaming
For at least the past two legislative sessions, lawmakers have filed bills to legalize internet casino gaming, or iGaming. It appeared momentum was on proponents’ sides. Until this month.
Earlier this month former state Rep. Sean Eberhart agreed to plead guilty to criminal fraud charges that federal prosecutors say stem from influencing casino legislation in return for the promise of a $350,000-a-year job.
Both Bray and Huston said Monday they don’t expect any gaming legislation to move in 2024.
During Monday’s Chamber panel, Bray said the federal investigation “makes gaming extremely hard to engage in.”
“It taints the Statehouse, it diminishes the confidence that people have in the integrity of the Statehouse, it causes an awful lot of problems and it makes it particularly difficult to engage in that kind of policy,” Bray said.
Issues that won’t move: Marijuana
Lawmakers studied the impact legalizing marijuana would have on the workforce and youth in an interim committee this fall, but the committee never issued any recommendations for legislation.
Both legislative leaders and Holcomb have emphasized their reluctance to legalize marijuana until at least after the federal government reschedules it. Huston reiterated his hesitation on Monday.
“No one has made a compelling case to me yet on why legalizing marijuana or having more people use cannabis in the state of Indiana is a positive thing,” Huston said. “So until I hear that answer, I wouldn’t expect a whole lot of change.”
Likewise, Bray said its passage “seemed unlikely.”
The ceremonial start of the legislative session is just that. Lawmakers won’t start moving bills until they return to the Statehouse in January.
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