Nelson Chipman Jr. often pauses while talking to sip from a bottle of water.
Due to treatments for a malignant carcinoma in his neck, his esophagus has shrunk and his saliva glands are dry. The 64-year-old has undergone chemotherapy and taken hydrocodone and morphine. He has also asked his doctors if medical marijuana would ease his pain or reliance on opiates.
But as Marshall County prosecutor, Chipman is sworn to uphold the law, even the federal ban on marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug and Indiana’s reluctance in legislating medical marijuana for Hoosiers.
“On the subject of medicinal cannabis, there is a fundamental disconnect between the realities of the agencies we entrust with cannabis regulation and the realities of millions of Americans, tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of Hoosiers,” Chipman told a legislative panel.
“This disconnect breeds disrespect for the law and its institutions. This disrespect erodes the rule of law. It is an erosion we can no longer tolerate.”
The committee he was addressing — the Interim Study Committee on Public Health, Behavioral Health and Human Services — couldn’t muster enough votes to present a recommendation on medical marijuana, either for or against, to the Indiana General Assembly for its 2019 session. There are 31 states that have a medical marijuana program.
Though disappointed, advocates say the committee’s stalemate isn’t a setback.
“Giving that vague response, that is lighting a fire under the public, and that is encouraging them to get more involved going into the General Assembly, and that’s where I think the magic will happen,” said David Phipps, communications director for the Indiana Chapter for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
He added, “I still think we have a really good chance of getting a medical cannabis bill passed, as limited as it may be, as early as this General Assembly.”
Committee members discussed whether medical marijuana should be limited to patients with chronic pain, Crohn’s disease or cancer, but no consensus was reached.
Opponents and supporters of medical marijuana generally acknowledge that Indiana needs further research.
Chipman’s advocacy is far afield from the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council.
“Despite claims to the contrary, the legalization of marijuana could further exacerbate Indiana’s opioid epidemic,” David Powell, the association’s executive secretary, said in a statement to the committee.
Powell cited a study of 30,000 American adults published by the American Journal of Psychiatry showing that marijuana users were more than twice as likely to abuse prescription opioids. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in 2015 that marijuana users are actually three times more likely to become addicted to heroin, Powell said.
The committee’s Oct. 18 meeting won’t end the discussion.
“There will be plenty of senators and representatives bringing legislation forward next year,” said State Sen. John Ruckelshaus, R-Indianapolis, a member of the committee.
State Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, plans to introduce legislation creating an umbrella agency to oversee programs for hemp, CBD oil and, possibly, medical marijuana.
“Nobody wants this job,” she said. “The Board of Health doesn’t want it. The Agriculture Department doesn’t want it. The seed commissioner doesn’t want it. I think we need an agency, perhaps similar to the alcohol commission or the gaming commission, and the agency can develop expertise in all of these issues.”
Both sides of the issue were given an hour to address the committee. Among the arguments:
• The Indiana Chamber of Commerce wants further clinical trials regarding therapeutic marijuana use, said Mike Ripley, Vice President of Healthcare Policy for the Chamber. Mostly, the chamber is concerned over the impact of marijuana use on Indiana’s workforce. In 2017, 1.9 percent of Indiana workers tested positive for marijuana, although some northeast and southwest pockets are as high as 3.1 percent, according to the annual Quest Diagnostics Drug Testing Index. The national rate is 2 percent, with Michigan at 2.8 percent, Illinois and Kentucky at 2.1 percent and Ohio at 1.9 percent.
• Nine percent of people using medical marijuana develop an addiction, according to Dr. Tim Kelly, medical director for addiction treatment services of Community Health Network. Youth who use substances have a chance for a five-fold lifetime risk of addiction. “Progression to use of other drugs is absolute,” he said.
• Medical marijuana could reduce opiate overdose deaths, said attorney Steven Dillon, chairman of Indiana NORML. Last year, 1,840 Hoosiers died from opioid overdoses, an 18 percent increase over the previous year, he said. There was a 25 percent decrease in opioid overdoses in medial marijuana states.
• States need to have strict regulations, said Tim Butler, an Illinois state legislator from Springfield. Patients should be fingerprinted with background checks in order to obtain a card allowing access to medical marijuana dispensaries. Sales need to be tracked as does “every plant from seed to sale.”