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Indiana remains 'an island of prohibition' as surrounding states legalize marijuana. Some hope that changes.

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Recreational Marijuana
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Posted at 9:38 AM, Dec 14, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-14 15:44:07-05

INDIANAPOLIS — Ohio voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum to legalize recreational marijuana on Nov. 7, making Indiana one of a shrinking minority of states that still prohibit pot.

Neighboring states Illinois, Michigan and now Ohio have legalized recreational weed. Kentucky, Indiana's other neighbor, allows medical marijuana.

Indiana is one of just 12 states with a total ban on marijuana. As calls for legalization grow, are Indiana lawmakers ready to approve it here?

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The Indiana Statehouse

Supporters hope so, but opponents say not so fast.

"We're an island of prohibition in Indiana and it is somewhat embarrassing," said Keith Johnson, a veteran and proponent of legalization. "Are we willing to be the last holdout in the ... 50 United States and deal with that embarrassment?"

Johnson is a board member for Indiana NORML, National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and served in the U.S. Navy from 1987 to 1991.

He said he suffered a brain injury that is being treated through the Veteran's Administration health care system. Taking cannabis-related products, Johnson said, has replaced most of the prescription medications he had been taking.

"It's a safer alternative than a lot of the pharmaceuticals the Veterans Administration puts us on," Johnson said, noting some of those medications were damaging to his liver, kidney and thyroid glands.

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FILE - A mature marijuana plant begins to bloom under artificial lights at Loving Kindness Farms in Gardena, Calif., May 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

"Going off those pharmaceuticals and having all those systems in my body even out, and now I'm out of danger."

Opponents include the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council and the Indiana State Police. They say marijuana use drives down workforce productivity, increases traffic crashes and leads to a host of health problems including an increased risk of heart failure.

"I think that there is some sentiment around the public safety issues, the juvenile-use issues, the health aspect," said Brock Patterson, director of government affairs for the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council.

Patterson noted that just last spring Indiana lawmakers approved a budget that includes $100 million for mental health services.

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Brock Patterson, director of government affairs for the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council.

"I would really want to see how that all plays out, if we can make any strides in that before we go ahead and insert another drug into the marketplace," Patterson said.

Veterans in Indiana have been among the loudest voices calling for legalization of marijuana, which has been used to treat PTSD, anxiety and other health problems.

Lisa Wilken, an Air Force veteran and activist, said medical marijuana would give doctors and patients a way to manage chronic pain without turning to highly addictive opiates.

"As a veteran, I support medicinal cannabis," Wilken said. "I'd like to see our doctors in Indiana have all the tools in their toolbox to be able to take care of our Hoosier veterans."

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Recreational marijuana sales brings in hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue in Michigan and Illinois, those states say.

Other veterans are not sure that legalizing marijuana is the answer.

Richard Leier, past-Department Commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars, said his organization believes the studies supporting marijuana are far from conclusive.

"The VFW official stance is it still needs to be researched," Leier said. "There needs to be more research done to make sure it is truly effective."

A group of lawmakers met on Nov. 1 to consider the impact of legalizing marijuana. After about seven hours of testimony, the Interim Study Committee on Commerce and Economic Development made no official recommendation.

The legislature's failure to act on marijuana laws frustrates supporters.

Wilken said it's time for Indiana leaders to listen to the many veterans who say using cannabis has helped them.

"I want our legislators to legislate compassionately," Wilken said. "Looking at medical marijuana and all of the studies that say it can help our veterans. I'd like our legislators to look at that and have that meaningful conversation."

MORE | Ohio voters approved recreational marijuana. Here's why Hoosiers won't get the chance | Neighbor states reap tax money as Indiana resists legalizing marijuana | New survey shows majority of Hoosiers favor Marijuana legalization | Indiana lawmakers hear testimony on marijuana decriminalization bill | Marijuana bills filed for Indiana 2023 legislative session | What happened to Indiana's 13 marijuana bills? They all went up in smoke.

Contact WRTV reporter Vic Ryckaert at victor.ryckaert@wrtv.com or on Twitter: @vicryc.