On February 19th, 2019, the Senate Corrections and Criminal Law committee convened for their final meeting of the 2019 legislative session. One of the bills heard during this meeting was Senate Bill 336, a miscellaneous bill authored and co-authored by several members of this committee and which reduced a number of misdemeanors to infractions along with some other adjustments. State Senator Karen Tallian (D-4) offered two amendments to this bill, referred to in the bill packet as Amendment #7 and Amendment #8.

Amendment #7 reduced possession of paraphernalia to a class D infraction, while amendment #8 reduced the possession of marijuana from a class D misdemeanor to a class C infraction. While Senator Tallian originally hoped for the committee to consider her decriminalization bill this session, committee chair Senator Mike Young did not schedule a hearing for SB 213, which would have removed all penalties for possession up to two ounces. Amendments #7 and #8 were an effort to make some positive change this session where a more broad reform did not have support in the committee. When the time came for Senator Tallian to present her amendments, she placed a bottle of wine and a pack of cigarettes on the table in front of her, commenting, “I brought props.”

“I hope they’re not illegal,” Senator Young quipped, drawing laughs. Senator Tallian then discussed the discrepancy between the two legal and regulated substances, both well known for their potential for dependence and negative health consequences, and marijuana, a product she claimed was certainly no more harmful or prone to dependence than the legal drugs sitting lawfully in front of her. She also discussed the fact that alcohol is a generally accepted part of our culture in Indiana and throughout human history, and that while some do not believe that people should drink, even during Prohibition it was never against the law to drink, only to manufacturer and sell it.

“Alcohol as we know forms a large part of our culture and economics in the state of Indiana and the nation,” she stated, “We hold meetings in Public Policy committee every year that regulate and encourage our alcohol industry; our Indiana wineries, our craft brewing.” 

“So why am I talking about alcohol and tobacco when this is about marijuana?” she continued, explaining her line of thought. “If you have ever partaken of marijuana, you probably would know the answer to that. If you’ve never had it, then you’re at a disadvantage in trying to determine just what kind of effect it has on you. For people who have used it at some point in your life, you all know that it is very comparable to alcohol. You get a little buzz, it lasts for a little while… Marijuana is not fairly characterized as similar to heroin, or coke, or meth, or the other opiates which can be addictive.”

She also explained a number of justifications for why society chooses to incarcerate people, and then asked the committee to consider whether or not these justifications make sense for cannabis possession. “Sometimes criminals are very bad people who do heinous crimes and we are afraid of that. Mass murderers, violent sex offenders. We put them in jail to keep the rest of us safe. I suggest to you, the people who are using marijuana right now are not violent criminals, they’re our friends, our neighbors, our colleagues. That’s not a justification.”

With no discussion from the committee outside of a request for clarification from Senator Lonnie Randolph, the committee voted as follows: Senator Tallian and her Democratic colleague Senator Lonnie Randolph (D-2) voted in favor of amendment #8, while each of her Republican colleagues voted against the amendment. This included Senators Sue Glick (R-13), Mike Young (R-35), Eric Koch (R-44), Jack Sandlin (R-36), Aaron Freeman (R-32), and Justin Busch (R-16). Senator Bohacek (R-8) was not present.

Following the defeat of Amendment #8, Senator Tallian then explained the amendment pertaining to possession of paraphernalia, noting that individuals living in Indiana might want to possess a device to facilitate the use of a product that is legal in other states, as well as commenting that devices to use illegal product are generally indistinguishable from devices used to facilitate the use of other drugs already legal in Indiana. Unmoved by her testimony, the committee again voted against the amendment along party lines.

Senator Young was invited to explain his vote on amendments 8 and 9, although his press secretary responded that Senator Young would not be commenting on this article. Several other offices were reached out to with the same question, although none responded. While Young wasn’t interested in offering an official statement on his reasoning, his interaction with a constituent on social media gave a clearer picture of his opinion of this issue.

William Henry, a constituent, tagged Senator Young in a Facebook post after the vote. “Mike Young, you’ve proved your weakness and failed the citizens. You are done in my district,” the post said.

“Then I apologize for giving Sen. Tallian the opportunity to present her amendments, to make her arguments for support of the issue and to receive the first ever vote on the matter,” Senator Young replied. “I won’t make that mistake again.”

While Senator Tallian was disappointed with the votes in committee, she said she will try to add her amendments to the bill again during the second reading of SB 336 on the Senate floor. “I expect it to be defeated,” she explained in a Facebook live video, “but I think someone needs to keep talking about this issue. Indiana needs to move into the light of day with the rest of the country.”

The opportunity for cannabis reform this session is effectively dead, and with legislators having to face angry constituents after voting on the record against reform, it will remain to be seen if Republican leadership will allow committee hearings on cannabis bills during the 2020 session or if they will continue to sweep the issue under the rug. Indiana residents have less than a year to convince their elected officials to change their tune for the 2020 session if they want to see reform sooner rather than later, and not much longer than that to decide if they need to make any replacements to the Statehouse lineup during the 2020 primary and general elections.

Senator Karen Tallian provides “A New Hope” for cannabis reform advocates throughout the state. Photo courtesy of Mark Thalls.

Want to watch the Senator Tallian’s full testimony in favor of her amendments? Video is available here and starts around 1 hour 24 minute mark.