Hoosiers support marijuana legalization. Will 2025 be the year?

Marijuana plant. (Credit: Nalidsa Sukprasert)

Jun 05, 2024
Key Points
  • Federal government plans to reclassify marijuana as a less dangerous substance
  • Advocates and lawmakers will push for cannabis legalization in 2025
  • Opponents argue children, state budget at risk if marijuana is legalized

When U.S. Navy veteran Keith Johnson suffered a traumatic brain injury after a serious car accident, his Veterans Affairs doctor prescribed him morphine. 

“It made me disabled,” said Johnson, who lives in Indianapolis. “I got off the meds and got my life back. Cannabis has helped me through that.”

Johnson has since become an advocate for cannabis use, particularly for veterans facing similar issues. He has regularly testified in favor of changing Indiana’s strict marijuana ban. 

“We’re creating interstate drug traffickers out of our vets, who have to go to Illinois and Michigan to get relief,” Johnson said. “If we care about that community, we need to change that.”

After years of minute progress, advocates like Johnson and sympathetic lawmakers are hoping the federal government’s decision to reclassify marijuana as a less harmful substance will finally open the door to cannabis legalization in Indiana. 

Indiana is 1 of 12 states that don’t allow medical marijuana use. All of its neighboring states have adopted some form of cannabis legalization. 

Polls show Hoosiers are overwhelmingly in favor of marijuana legalization. According to the Bowen Center for Public Affairs at Ball State University’s annual Hoosier Survey, just 10% of respondents believed cannabis should remain illegal. 

“We have to be that voice,” state Sen. Rodney Pol, D-Chesterton, said. “It’s a very loud chorus of constituents in Indiana that want to see [the Legislature] move on this.”

But the Legislature’s Republican leadership, which has refused to grant hearings for countless marijuana-related bills in recent years, has not changed its position on the issue. Marijuana was not selected as a topic for discussion by legislative subcommittees over the summer. 

At least 10 marijuana-related bills, including proposals to legalize medical cannabis and decriminalize possession of less than two ounces, were proposed during the 2024 General Assembly session. None received a committee hearing. 

Opponents of legalization argue that marijuana is still federally against the law and remains a risk for abuse by children.

Marijuana’s current status

Possession of marijuana is illegal under both federal and state law. 

A federal conviction carries a sentence of up to one year in prison and up to a $1,000 fine. Indiana punishments include up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. 

Indiana does allow the possession of “low-THC hemp extract,” meaning CBD oil containing less than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol, the principal psychoactive compound found in cannabis. 

The U.S. Department of Justice in May recommended marijuana be moved from a Schedule I controlled substance — a classification for drugs with no accepted medical use and a high chance of abuse — to a Schedule III, which includes drugs with less risk of dependency and more accepted medical uses, such as testosterone or ketamine. 

Marijuana will remain federally illegal under this change. 

Democrats’ push

Sen. Pol believes the schedule change is enough to warrant further consideration of legal marijuana in Indiana. 

“By definition, given the fact that it’s not a Schedule I anymore, it’s an admission that there are medical medicinal purposes for it,” Pol said. 

Pol pushed for Republican leaders to allow marijuana-related bills onto the Senate floor for debate. 

“The caucus is standing in the way of progress on this issue,” Pol said. “I have friends on the other side of the aisle who are ready to move on this.” 

Because Indiana does not allow citizen-led ballot initiatives, the Legislature is the only avenue through which legalization can occur. 

State Rep. Sue Errington, a Muncie Democrat,said she’s pushed for medical marijuana legalization because constituents with health issues such as seizures have asked for relief. 

“If any of us could get our bill on the floor, and the leadership didn’t tell Republicans to vote no, I’m sure something would pass,” said Errington, who has offered a marijuana legalization bill in 10 of the past 11 sessions. 

She also believes that the state is losing out on tax revenue to its neighbors and that criminalizing cannabis leads to a disproportionate number of arrests of Black and brown people. 

Pol and Errington are in favor of legalized recreational marijuana but believe medicinal use is the logical first step for Indiana. 

Leadership appears unmoved

Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, in a statement to State Affairs, urged caution but acknowledged the marijuana schedule change was creating some interest in changing the state’s law. 

Bray said the federal change will only allow for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to further test marijuana.

“With that in mind, there are still many public policy concerns regarding any legalization of marijuana in areas like public safety and impaired driving, increased risks to children and teens and severe adverse mental-health effects, just to name a few,” Bray said. 

“Since this potential rescheduling of marijuana doesn’t signal it’s safe for recreational use or even widespread medicinal use, Indiana would be wise to continue approaching marijuana issues thoughtfully and cautiously,” he added. 

Not everyone is convinced

Lawmakers in November heard six hours of testimony on the pros and cons of marijuana legalization at a hearing held by the Interim Study Committee on Commerce and Economic Development.

State Sen. Scott Baldwin, R-Noblesville, chaired the study committee. After hearing both sides out, Baldwin told State Affairs he remains opposed to marijuana legalization. 

“I’m not confident that we would be doing more good than harm,” Baldwin said. “I feel like there’s a strong chance we’d be increasing instances of cannabis use disorder in our youth, and I’m even more worried about an increase in Medicaid rate expenditures.”. 

Baldwin said he has heard anecdotally that legalization increased other states’ Medicaid spending. Indiana lawmakers have worked feverishly in recent years to lower the federal program’s cost, as it is one of the largest spending areas in the state’s budget. 

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce was among the groups in November to testify against legalization. It warned of possible complications for the state’s workforce and called for additional USDA testing on marijuana’s efficacy as a medical treatment. 

It has also called for more research into the medical properties of pot. 

In a statement, the chamber reaffirmed its position: 

“The Indiana Chamber opposes the legalization of marijuana in any form for recreational use. The Chamber opposes the legalization of botanical marijuana for medical or therapeutic use, until a time when its efficacy and safety have been proven consistent through clinical trials.”

Is 2025 the year?

Johnson, the cannabis advocate, believes Indiana will legalize medical marijuana in 2025. He saidthe federal schedule change and the looming departure of Gov. Eric Holcomb, who has been staunchly against legalization, will push legislation across the finish line. 

“I know doctors, lawyers and others who use cannabis and are very productive members of Indiana society,” Johnson said. “There are no more good excuses not to do it.”

State Rep. Heath VanNatter, R-Kokomo, is not so sure. In each of the past five years, he has submitted a bill that would decriminalize the possession of less than two ounces of marijuana. 

“My proposal is the easiest starting point: Let’s keep people from getting arrested for this,” VanNatter said. 

Although he’s had some support from fellow Republicans and Democrats, his bill has stalled each time. VanNatter supports legalizing marijuana for recreational use, saying Hoosiers have shown they want to follow neighboring states down that path. 

VanNatter agrees Holcomb’s exit will matter in the upcoming debate. 

U.S. Sen. Mike Braun, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, has said he is open to the idea of medical marijuana, while Democratic nominee Jennifer McCormick has included legalization in her campaign platform. 

But VanNatter believes the time isn’t quite right. 

“I honestly don’t anticipate anything passing this year,” he said, “but it’s just a matter of time before it happens.”

Read these related stories:

‘Island of prohibition:’ Other red states have legalized marijuana. Why not Indiana?

Where Indiana’s candidates for governor stand on marijuana legalization

Contact Rory Appleton on X at @roryehappleton or email him at [email protected].