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Will Money Sway Indiana Lawmakers To Consider Cannabis Legalization?

Staker speaks at a rally earlier this month at the Indiana Statehouse. (Seth Tackett, WTIU/WFIU News)

Despite Indiana’s status as one of just 17 without a medical cannabis program, it doesn’t appear that Hoosiers will be able to purchase legal cannabis anytime soon. That’s in spite of growing recreational sales in neighboring states. 

The Hoosier state’s tight grip on marijuana isn’t stopping people from using it, and the market across the country is growing readily in other states. 

Dina Rollman is Senior Vice President of Government and Regulatory Affairs at Chicago-based cannabis producer and retailer Green Thumb Industries. She says Illinois’ status as a recreational state didn’t happen overnight.

“In the summer of 2014, Illinois started the process of implementing the law it had passed to create a medical cannabis industry," she says. "So, that meant passing regulations and then issuing a competitive cultivation application and competitive dispensary applications.”

Rollman, is one of the folks who ensures GTI — which is one of the nation’s largest cannibus companies — remains compliant. She admits positions like hers, which are now common, didn’t exist back when the conversation first started.

“There was no such thing as a cannabis lawyer in Illinois in 2014,” she says.

Rollman’s own career path, however, reflects GTI’s growth.

“We’ve seen the Illinois industry expand greatly from having about 3,000 patients to now almost 100,000 patients and being on the cusp of recreational,” she says. “GTI itself went from being just an Illinois only entity with one dispensary to now having 34 dispensaries open across the country. We’re now publicly traded, we operate in 11 states.”

Other States Aren't Forcing Indiana's Hand

The rapid growth across the country has been slow to take off here in Indiana. State policymakers routinely cite the federal government’s classification of cannabis as a Schedule I drug without medical benefits as a reason for not debating legalization. Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) spoke last year about where he stood on the issue.

“[We’re] not allowing some hodgepodge national effort to organically spring up because folks are looking the other way,” he told reporters. “This would require medical research and science to give us the true evidence on both the medicinal value and the efficacy of recreational use. That’s not here yet. As I understand it, there’s about a 12-acre farm in Mississippi that’s responsible for doing the research.”

The FDA has one approved site in Mississippi, but research is being done across the country.

map of broadband
GTI currently operates locations across the country and in states surrounding Indiana. (Brock Turner, WFIU/WTIU News)

Andy Seeger is the Cannabis Research Manager at Chicago’s Brightfield Group. He and his colleagues research cannabis for companies that produce everything from common household goods to alcohol.

“Some of the biggest growth rates we are seeing in users are 65+,” he says. “Now that brands are coming online targeted to consumers, we’re seeing female usage going up and normalizing.  It’s across age groups, it’s across racial lines, it’s across gender lines, it’s across income lines it’s up with everybody.”

That data leads Seeger to a simple conclusion: cannabis is here to stay.

“We’ve now hit critical mass,” he says.

A Different Kind Of User

Many of the users Seeger studies are using cannabis differently than what most associate with it.

“We’re seeing big growth in the market for the medicinal side: patient numbers are way up,” he says. “Adding things like chronic pain brings in a lot of patients, and that’s the number one thing we see users in our consumer data are using cannabis for when its medicinal is chronic pain.”

Jeff Staker is one of them. 

He made a career serving in military and for defense operations. He says he was prescribed opiates through Veterans Affairs for nearly ten years to treat chronic back pain, but reached a point several years ago where his doctor no longer felt comfortable prescribing them.

“I was running the risk of accidentally overdosing," he admits. “In 2016 my doctor and I obviously discontinued it, and I got off the meds.”

Staker says he questioned his VA doctor about medical cannabis. He’d been hearing about other states legalizing it, but the answer he would receive inspired him to seek change.

“He said if he could prescribe and recommend it, he would, but he can’t because of the federal restrictions," Staker says.

So, Staker took it upon himself to start Hoosier Veterans for Medical Cannabis. 

The name says it all.

Staker wasn’t satisfied, though. He would soon apply for a medical cannabis card through the state of California. Currently, he receives cannabis just like any other medication prescribed through the VA.

“I have a family and it doesn’t deter,” he said from a committee room at the Indiana Statehouse ahead of a scheduled rally later that morning. “It gives me a better quality of life other than that maybe I would have to sit around and nurse my ailments with something else that wouldn’t be so beneficial to me.”

Staker, who recently announced a bid for an open seat in the state legislature, says he’s seen the movement and attendance at his events increase every year. That shouldn’t be surprising. Research from Gallop shows a growing number of Midwesterners are supportive of legalized cannabis.

“I’ve started to see a lot of veterans coming out to me saying ‘hey, I already do it’ whether it’s legal or not legal in our state, and that sort of just started motivating me to keep going forward and going further,” Staker says.  He admits he’s tried several times to coordinate a meeting with Gov. Holcomb, but hasn’t been successful yet. 

“They [veterans] shouldn’t feel like criminals,” he says candidly.

Despite calls from advocates, experts say there doesn’t appear to be much momentum to declassify the drug federally, which is likely what’s keeping Indiana from having a conversation.

The industry, however, isn’t waiting. The sales of both medical and recreational product is growing rapidly; so is the influence of companies in the space.

“The money is really going to be the accelerator here,” Seeger says. “It’s what’s going to lean on politicians, it’s what’s going to lean on markets to open, it’s what’s going to lean on what happens.”

Seeger says other states across the country are moving toward legalization, and with that multi-state operators, like GTI will be more common.

“This is big time. This is big money,” Seeger says candidly from a downtown Chicago high rise. “This is the backroom money that gets things done. These are big companies that are going multi-state operators so that they’ve got locations in each state despite state restrictions saying you need to grow, process and sell within the state.”

He says the notion of small growers are all but gone.

“This is quickly professionalizing from just people growing on their own and wanting to be left alone to a completely new, big sin industry.”

This is the second of two stories on marijuana legalization and the pressure Indiana currently faces to move toward creating a regulated program. Read the first here.

Want to contact your legislators about an issue that matters to you? Find out how to contact your senators and member of Congress here.

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