How Indiana lawmakers are winning the fight to legalize CBD oil


INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - The battle to legalize CBD oil in Indiana is still being fought in the trenches of the Indiana Statehouse.

Behind the scenes, state representatives and senators are playing a chess game, carefully maneuvering CBD bills through committees and caucuses, cautiously sidestepping hostile opposition that could kill the legislation.

So far, the strategy has worked. Lawmakers believe they finally have enough support – and votes – to soon make CBD oil accessible to all Hoosiers who want it.

But the chess game continues, and even the legislature’s staunchest CBD supporters admit obstacles remain that could derail efforts to legalize hemp oil.

CBD oil products. (WTHR Photo)
CBD oil products (WTHR Photo)
Overcoming ignorance

For months, State Rep. Jim Lucas, R – Seymour, has been talking to anyone who will listen about the need to pass CBD legislation in Indiana. In January, he introduced HB 1137 – one of three bills still alive in the General Assembly that would legalize CBD oil. It would also clear the way for Indiana farmers to begin growing industrial hemp (the plant that produces CBD oil) and launch a multi-million dollar industry that is currently banned in Indiana.

Thursday morning, Lucas was back it. After his colleagues in the Indiana House unanimously passed HB 1137, Lucas found himself testifying on behalf of the bill to state senators.

"The two biggest obstacles we still have are ignorance and stigma," he told members of the Senate Commerce and Technology Committee. His comments were aimed at a small but vocal minority on the committee who oppose CBD oil legislation. "I find it incomprehensible how they can still be resistant to this," he told WTHR. "Just look at the facts. Stop comparing it to marijuana. Anyone who takes the time to educate themselves knows this will help people and it’s the right way to go."

Lucas' strategy has been simple: overwhelm his opposition with education, facts and emotion. He lined up an all-star cast of experts in the fields of medicine, agriculture and industry to share powerful testimonials and to answer lawmakers’ questions. And after skeptics’ concerns have been addressed, Lucas then hits them with round two: mothers, fathers, veterans, housewives and other everyday citizens who explain how CBD oil has saved them or their children from a host of serious medical conditions that no Hoosier-loving lawmaker would wish on his worst enemy.

Anyone can testify at the public hearings. Dozens of passionate advocates have signed up to speak in support of legalizing CBD oil and industrial hemp. Not a single individual has testified in opposition.

"How can you not support this stuff after hearing what all these people have to say?" Lucas rhetorically asked last month following CBD testimony in the House Agriculture and Rural Development Committee. "I kept my bill simple. Once you learn what hemp can do and how many people are benefiting from it, it makes perfect sense. That's why we're getting so much support and so many people have come around."

In recent weeks, the Indiana House of Representatives rallied behind two comprehensive CBD bills with unanimous bi-partisan support. Lawmakers passed Lucas' bill 90-0. They approved another CBD legalization bill, authored by State Rep. Bill Friend, R - Macy, by an overwhelming vote of 93-0.

Those bills are now being debated in the Senate, where support for CBD is far from unanimous and where some lawmakers are still trying to kill the legislation.

Opposition still fighting

One of the most vocal opponents of CBD legislation is State. Sen. Jean Leising, R – Oldenburg.

"I'm an old nurse and I always lean towards science," she told WTHR last week. "As far as I’m aware, there’s nothing in the United States to show proper dosage and justifiable use for CBD oil. That concerns me."

Leising also believes CBD oil and other products derived from industrial hemp violate federal law. Industrial hemp is a type of cannabis, and cannabis is currently listed as a Schedule I substance banned under federal law.

"My biggest concern is: are we potentially putting Indiana at odds with federal law," she said Thursday morning during the Senate Commerce and Technology Committee hearing.

Republican State Sens. Houchin, Tomes and Leising listen to testimony from a hemp farmer on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018, at the Statehouse in Indianapolis. (WTHR Photo/Bob Segall)

Other lawmakers share her concern. State Sens. Erin Houchin, R – Salem, and Eric Koch, R – Bedford, sit on the same committee, and they’ve also expressed doubts about the legality of CBD oil and industrial hemp under federal law. Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill raised the same concern this fall in a written legal analysis – a document that prompted state lawmakers to file ten bills in an effort to legalize CBD oil within state borders.

Last year, a spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration told WTHR the DEA considers CBD oil to be illegal. At the same time, he said federal officials will not enforce the law.

"We are in the middle of an opioid crisis in this country. That's our biggest priority right now," said DEA spokesman Rusty Payne. "People are not dying from CBD. Some would argue lives are being saved by CBD. Are we going to get in the middle of that? Probably not."

CBD advocates argue the 2014 Federal Farm Bill and 2016 Omnibus Spending Bill passed by Congress legalize industrial hemp products (including CBD oil) in states where CBD is permitted as part of a state-run, federally-approved research program. Reasonable arguments and analysis have been made on both sides of the legal debate – a debate that has triggered heated confrontations among senators.

State Sen. Michael Young, R-Indianapolis
State Sen. Michael Young, R-Indianapolis (official portrait)

Earlier this month, as lawmakers debated SB 52 on the floor of the Indiana Senate, Leising openly bickered with the bill’s author, State Sen. Michael Young, R – Indianapolis, about the status of CBD oil under federal law.

“She keeps trying to tell me it’s not legal and I told her she’s wrong, then she tells me to show her the law. That’s not my job. She can look it up herself,” Young told WTHR after the heated exchange.

Later that week, Indiana senators voted 35-13 to approve SB 52, a bill intended to legalize CBD oil with low levels of THC for all Hoosiers. Senators pointed to two major turning points in the debate.

The first was testimony provided behind closed doors. In January, the Republican’s senate supermajority invited Bloomington physician Dr. Matthew Andry to speak to its caucus about CBD oil. The doctor spoke directly to Republican senators for more than an hour, explaining the impact CBD oil has on the human body and the significant impact his patients have experienced from taking the product.

"That really woke people up," said one of the senator’s who attended the discussion. "That cleared minds for those who had questions and concerns and doubts. A lot of eyes were opened that day," added the senator, who asked not be identified because he is not authorized to publicly discuss matters that take place inside the caucus room.

The second factor that helped ensure a favorable CBD vote in the Senate was a decision to distance CBD legislation from medical marijuana. A last-minute proposal from State Sen. Karen Tallian, D – Ogden Dunes, would have amended SB 52 to establish a summer study committee to determine the pros and cons of medical marijuana for Indiana. Senators soundly rejected that amendment, choosing to keep a clear distinction between cannabis products that come from industrial hemp and those that come from other types of hemp with much higher levels of THC. Adding the issue of medical marijuana to the legislation – even the idea of studying it – would have outraged the most conservative members of the caucus, seriously jeopardizing their recently-earned support and potentially dooming the bill.

Trying something different

As several CBD bills continue to advance through the General Assembly, the strategies used by both sides are becoming more clear.

Supporters of CBD oil are sticking with their original game plan, waging a battle to educate their colleagues. Opponents now seem to understand their "not legal under federal law" argument is falling on deaf ears, as a growing number of lawmakers learn the potential benefits of CBD oil and widespread support among Hoosiers.

"Some of these people are more interested in what the federal government thinks than what their own constituents think," said State Sen. Jim Tomes, R – Wadesville, who defended SB 52 during a lively debate on the Senate floor. "They think when the federal government takes a position, you have to check your common sense and morals at the door, and I just disagree with that."

Following a series of legislative defeats, some anti-CBD lawmakers appear to be exploring a different path, attempting to create enough reasonable doubt in the minds of colleagues to swing momentum back to their side.

Leising told senators at Thursday's committee hearing that Kentucky hemp growers are allowed to blend hemp leaves from multiple fields before they are tested by state regulators. (Kentucky law requires each batch of industrial hemp to be tested to ensure it does not have high levels of THC.) She suggested the blending allows industrial hemp farmers in Kentucky to avoid detection and penalties if their crops do not meet federal rules.

industrialized hemp
On Sept. 25, 2016, Mark Justh, left, and Dan Dolgin, right, stand beside a field of industrial hemp on their JD Farms in Eaton, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mary Esch)

A Kentucky farmer testified moments later that the senator’s information is untrue, pointing out that state regulators collect hemp samples directly from the Kentucky hemp fields, not giving farmers an opportunity to submit blended crops for testing.

Leising told WTHR that CBD oil "presents a danger" because it is unregulated and users could therefore overdose on the product because there are no established dosage instructions. But the senator admitted she has never heard of a single case of someone overdosing on CBD oil or suffering any negative health effects from taking the product.

"I think people probably don’t call me about it because they know I’m not a proponent for it," she explained, adding that anecdotal reports from thousands of people who found medical benefits from using CBD oil are "just stories" that fall far short of the scientific evidence needed to help lawmakers make informed policy decisions.

The senator said she also hasn’t heard from farmers. Despite weeks of testimony from Hoosier farmers and the Indiana Farm Bureau, who all support efforts to legalize industrial hemp in Indiana, Leising - who owns her own farm - told WTHR "they haven’t said much to me."

She did, however, speak with officials at Purdue University who oversee the state’s hemp research pilot program. “Even they aren’t interested in this. They don’t want to handle the seeds, and they really don’t want to deal with any of it,” Leising told Eyewitness News last week, repeating a comment she has also shared with some of her colleagues in the Senate. The director of the Purdue hemp research program says the senator’s comments are only partially true.

"I’m totally supportive of it," said Ron Turco, assistant dean for agricultural and environmental research at Purdue, when asked about the CBD and hemp bills being considered by Indiana lawmakers. "Anything that could expand hemp production in Indiana is a good thing. We’ve got a big market for it. There are some pretty good bills out there that we support, and we’d be thrilled to help Indiana farmers make money on hemp."

Through Purdue University, Turco holds Indiana’s lone federal license to research industrial hemp and to distribute hemp seeds. If the state opens up hemp farming through legislation, Turco admits he is concerned he will become overwhelmed by requests to buy hemp seeds for farmers across the state.

"I support expanding hemp production in the state. I just can’t be the guy who buys seeds for everyone. I don’t have the capacity to do that," he explained to WTHR when asked about Leising’s comments. "We’re on board. The only thing we don’t want to be is seed brokers. We can’t do that. If that’s being interpreted as we don’t support legalizing hemp production, that’s not accurate."

So far, the arguments used by CBD opponents have been unsuccessful. The Senate Commerce and Technology Committee passed HB 1137 Thursday morning, following more than 90 minutes of testimony and debate. Leising, Houchin and Koch opposed the bill, but they were outvoted 8-3.

The bill could have been killed with a single vote, had it been assigned to a different committee.

A game of keepaway

The most comprehensive CBD/industrial hemp legislation Indiana lawmakers are considering got its start in the House Agriculture and Rural Development Committee. After HB 1137 sailed through the full House, legislative leaders had to decide which committee would hear the bill in the Senate. The most logical choice: the Senate Agriculture Committee, which is chaired by - you guessed it - Jean Leising.

The bill was assigned to the Senate Commerce and Technology Committee instead.

State Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg
State Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg (official portrait)

"That’s not by accident," Leising told WTHR. "Bills are assigned to committees for a definite reason, and I think perhaps everyone knew the bill would have a better chance in another committee. Committee chairs have the opportunity to decide which bills to hear and which they do not. Everyone knows I don’t support the CBD bills."

Leising said, at this point, nothing will change her mind on CBD oil -- unless federal lawmakers suddenly decide to legalize it on a national level. "Even then, I wouldn’t choose to take it or give it to someone in my family, but that’s just my choice," she said.

Asked for reaction to his bill sidestepping the Senate Ag Committee, the author of HB 1137 laughed. "Let’s just say, I was very happy with the committee assignment it received. I think I’ll just leave it at that,” Lucas told WTHR. "As it evolved, it became a jobs and commerce bill – not just an ag bill."

Several lawmakers suggested the bill’s committee-friendly assignment reflect support by Senate and House leadership (and by the governor) to legalize CBD oil and industrial hemp during the current legislative session.

With several significant legislative hurdles already cleared, that could happen before lawmakers recess in mid-March.

“This is one of those truly phenomenal measures that doesn’t come along very often,” State Sen. Jim Tomes, R – Wadesville, told WTHR. “We finally have a majority of [state lawmakers] who understand this issue. I think it’s going to get done.”

You can see the latest development in each of the Indiana legislature’s CBD oil and industrial hemp bills here.

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