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Is this Midwestern state next to legalize medical marijuana?

Rally planned for this weekend at the Monroe County Courthouse in Bloomington, Indiana

After years of firm opposition from the Indiana Statehouse, the tides may be turning on the issue of legalizing medical marijuana use.

So far, 29 states and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis use for medicinal purposes, including neighboring states Illinois (2013), Michigan (2008) and Ohio (2016), according to ProCon.org. Seven of those states have taken legalization a step further, allowing for recreational use. Of the states allowing recreational use, none is in the Midwest, and just two — Maine and Massachusetts — are on the East Coast. However, cannabis remains a Schedule I substance under the federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970.

The Indiana Legislature did, this past April, legalize the use of cannabidiol, or CBD oil, for patients with epilepsy who don’t have other sufficient treatment options. Cannabidiol contains only trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and therefore does not produce a “high” for the user.

As far as medical marijuana uses are concerned, Indiana has no laws permitting it on the books.

For Dr. Clark Brittain, a physician with Indiana University Health Southern Indiana Physicians, there are many compassionate reasons to legalize medical marijuana use. Brittain has long been a medical marijuana advocate.

He told The Herald-Times in 2002: “It’s one of the safest drugs ever known. And it’s been studied a lot. It’s safer than aspirin. Nobody has ever died from it.”

In fact, medical marijuana was a major platform of his when he ran for the Indiana General Assembly 15 years ago. In his June 2002 candidacy announcement, Brittain said: “I will champion legalizing medical marijuana to alleviate the unnecessary suffering of thousands of Hoosiers.”

Democrat Matt Pierce, now a senior lecturer in IU’s Media School, won that state representative seat, which he still holds.

“I have patients who use it, and they get relief from it,” Brittain said of marijuana. “One of the greatest medications available to humans is cannabis.”

Brittain, speaking solely for himself as a “compassionate physician,” said he will continue to ask the Indiana State Medical Association to propose legalization legislation, made only more relevant with the current opioid epidemic.

“In these states where medical marijuana has been legalized, we see a huge drop in narcotics-related overdose deaths, almost as much as 50 percent in some places,” he said, adding that marijuana has been used for thousands of years, both recreationally and medicinally, and there hasn’t been a single recorded overdose-related death. “Just from a safety aspect, it makes sense to use it.”

The majority of Hoosiers agree that medical marijuana should be legalized, according to an October 2016 WTHR/Howey Politics Indiana-commissioned poll. The poll found that 73 percent of Indiana voters support creating a medical marijuana program in the state, according to the Marijuana Policy Project.

Over the years, Democrats, including state Sen. Karen Tallian, District 4, have introduced pro-legalization bills, but without any success in the General Assembly.

A Republican in the Statehouse is expected to introduce his own bill on medical marijuana next year when the General Assembly convenes in January. State Rep. Jim Lucas, a Republican from Seymour, has stated his intention to introduce a bill that would legalize medicinal marijuana use.

One group in Indiana is hoping to build on that momentum with a pro-cannabis legalization rally Saturday afternoon at the Monroe County Courthouse. The rally is being organized by the Higher Society of Indiana Inc., or the Higher Fellowship, a political group bringing attention to the benefits of medical marijuana use and legislative reform in Indiana.

The rally is from 1 to 3 p.m. on the courthouse lawn.

The group is inviting anyone who has benefited from medicinal marijuana use to share their stories. Organizers also will be handing out “Medical Cannabis 101” information sheets, as well as information on industrial hemp and why members of the GOP should support this movement, citing examples of having a smaller federal government, increased states’ rights and increased revenue brought on by a new industry.

“We’ve been holding rallies all across the state for the past year or two,” said Alex Yong, Higher Fellowship director of research. “We want to get people out into their communities to show politicians that hey, guys, people in this state really care about this issue.”

Higher Fellowship members spoke at a legalization rally in Dunn Meadow on IU’s campus last October, and organized a rally in Martinsville this past April. Members regularly attend Indianapolis city-county council meetings, and other rallies across Indiana.

“All we ask is that people who attend this rally act professional and friendly to one another. We’re here to make a serious statement and to show that this is a serious movement,” Yong said.

Both Yong and Brittain said that support from Lucas, a Republican lawmaker, will be a major boon to the movement.

“What makes this really exciting, even more so than previous efforts from Democrats, is that this is a bigger name in the House and a Republican,” Yong said.

Brittain said he believes Indiana lawmakers will pass legislation sooner rather than later.

“Indiana has long been kind of at the tail end of social change,” he said, noting traditional religious ideals often have a huge impact on legislative decisions. “But I do think the tide is changing, and Lucas’ voice will be heard in the General Assembly.

“It’s time. It’s past time.”

Information from the Herald-Times (Bloomington, Ind.)