As Indiana remains landlocked on three sides by states with some level of legal acceptance of marijuana, Southern Indiana police deal with an increased flow of the drug from other areas, forcing lawmakers to ponder where the state is headed.
Illinois recently became the 11th state plus the District of Columbia to legalize the medicinal and recreational use of marijuana, joining Michigan. Ohio is one of 22 states that allow medicinal use only, while Indiana and Kentucky retain laws against any possession of the drug.
What this means for Indiana, some law enforcement officers report, is an increasing flow of the drug in various forms — plants, oil, wax, vape pens, and infused into new products like edibles — being brought across the border from states where it is legal.
While police say it may be too soon to see effects from the bordering states, specifically Illinois, Southern Indiana has experienced an increase in presence of marijuana.
Sgt. Carey Huls with the Indiana State Police said that marijuana has always been prevalent, but police are now seeing more of the specialty products coming from states like California or Colorado with more established laws allowing their use. Some products are physically brought in, while others are sent directly to Indiana by mail or third party carriers for sale here.
"It's not uncommon to see those," Huls said. "I won't say it's significant, but it's definitely on the radar more than it was before."
UPHOLDING THE LAW
It's a misdemeanor for possession of any amount of marijuana in Indiana, which can turn into a felony charge if the person has more than an ounce, or has a prior drug conviction.
But police said it's more than just about upholding the state statutes — the products coming in are sometimes much stronger than before, and attractive packaging like colorful wrappers, candy-flavored weed or THC oil in soda — can attract a much younger market.
"We're just concerned for the safety of everybody, especially when you see something packaged in a way that might introduce younger people to it," Huls said. "It's a dangerous product — many people disagree and say marijuana is very safe, but many of these products [are] not regulated.
"Regardless of that, marijuana is illegal in Indiana and we're going to enforce it."
Clarksville Police Chief Mark Palmer has also reported seeing a marked increase in the presence of marijuana over the past few years.
"It started small and it's escalated, but with more states [legalizing] marijuana, we've definitely felt the effects here," he said.
Last November, Clarksville Police Det. Joel DeMoss headed up an investigation with the Southern Indiana Drug Task Force that led to the arrest of two suspects and the seizure of $1.7 million in cash and $1.5 million in drugs, including more than 100 pounds of marijuana, 15,000 marijuana vape pens and four pounds of THC wax.
There have also been more online sales discovered or third-party deliveries, which means it's being shipped directly from a state where it's legal.
Law enforcement must get creative when looking for those large-scale operations that may be more more harmful than marijuana alone, those which Palmer said use the profits to fund operations for harder drugs or human trafficking.
"States that it's still illegal in are learning how to adjust to work with the law, so we're doing proper enforcement," he said. "I'm sure at some point in the future all states will probably legalize it in some form or fashion, but it's definitely a hardship on those states now."
LOOKING AT THE LAW
While Indiana has had legislation come before the General Assembly in recent years, lawmakers have failed to push the envelope to allow marijuana use.
Indiana House Bill 1283, which died earlier this year without making it far, would have decriminalized the possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana or five grams of hash oil or hashish, making them class D infractions.
In 2018, a House bill in support of medicinal use for the drug also failed.
State Rep. Rita Fleming, D-Jeffersonville, said she wants to take a step back and look at how things have happened in states like Colorado, to see how decisions to decriminalize marijuana would affect Indiana, such as bringing in more money in taxes.
As a physician, she has given thought to the health effects of usage — there's evidence it may help alleviate pain or nausea, and she wants to know if it could help people who are getting off harder drugs such as opioids or methamphetamine.
"I don't find that to be terribly controversial," she said. "But on the other hand, to allow more widespread use of marijuana, I'm not saying it's a bad thing, but I do want to look at more data."
Fleming said she has other concerns, too. She wouldn't want a pregnant woman or a teenager using the drug, for instance. Before things move, she also wants to make sure to talk to police, to see if they believe marijuana leads to more criminal activity, or if decriminalizing it would free up resources for police to pursue other crimes.
"I want to hear law enforcement's take on this because they're on the front lines," she said. "I think before we pass any kind of legislation, we really need input from those who deal with it at that level."