Mrs. K lives in a fairly upscale neighborhood in the suburbs outside of Indy. She's a mom. She has a professional career. She was recently widowed.
She could also be considered a criminal in the state of Indiana.
Over the course of the past few years, Mrs. K has been complicit in regular purchases of marijuana, making some buys that might've been large enough to constitute a felony under Indiana law.
"Mrs. K" is a pseudonym. Some of the details of her story will remain intentionally vague. "This widow doesn't look good in orange," she says with a grin.
A while back, her husband, "Mr. K", was diagnosed with cancer, and an extremely rare form at that.
"One in a million," explains Mrs. K.
Facing aggressive chemotherapy and an invader that attacked his digestive tract, a cancer so exotic that little research had been done in the area of symptom relief, Mr. K's oncologist told his patient that if weed was legal in the state of Indiana, the doc would've prescribed medicinal marijuana to help Mr. K continue to eat as he fought the disease.
According to Mrs. K, "He told us, 'Don't tell me how, but if you can get it, try it and see if it works.' "
Mr. K was a professional, white-collar gent who enjoyed fine wine. He had a military background. He coached youth sports. His coaching style mirrored his parenting technique. Tough, but fair. Follow the rules.
After the second round of chemo, the Ks began buying pot for Mr. K. A friend of a friend of a friend helped them out after hearing what Mr. K was going through.
"It was very apparent to me as a caretaker that it had a calming effect," says Mrs. K. "Chemo can make you violently ill, and we saw none of that."
There are studies that back up Mrs. K's observations. Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base, a National Academy of Science publication by Janet E. Joy, Stanley J. Watson, Jr., and John A. Benson, Jr., concluded that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) could be helpful for reducing chemo-induced "emesis," the medical term for vomiting:
"It is possible that the harmful effects of smoking marijuana for a limited period of time might be outweighed by the antiemetic benefits of marijuana, at least for patients for whom standard antiemetic therapy is ineffective and who suffer from debilitating emesis."
There were kids in the house. Teenagers. Was Mrs. K worried?
"Yes! I was," says Mrs. K. "But Mr. K was very discreet."
Eventually though, the Ks let their kids — and only their kids — in on Dad's secret.
"He named each one of his pipes," laughs Mrs. K. "We had Cartman, we had Holmes, we had Tom ... they all had names."
Mrs. K was well aware of the risks. Possessing over 30 grams of pot — just over an ounce — is a felony in Indiana, which can bring a fine of $10,000 and three years in jail. The maximum sentence for the misdemeanor of holding less is still a whopping five grand and a year in lockup. Paraphernalia possession carries no jail time (it's an "infraction") but the fines still max out at the $10,000 level.
Indiana has some of the harshest pot laws in the nation. By comparison, one needs to be holding over eight ounces of weed to be considered a felon in Kentucky, and the maximum $250 fine is just 5 percent of the top end penalty in Indiana.
The maximum jail sentence for misdemeanor possession in Kentucky is only 45 days.
Despite the risk, Mrs. K wanted to make sure her husband could enjoy the basic — and dignified — human function of taking nutrition by mouth.
Two surgeries and all of the treatments ultimately failed to beat the cancer. Last fall, it became apparent that there was nothing left that could be done for Mr. K — except to make the man as comfortable as possible. Weed continued to be a help.
"Once he quit chemo, because of the type of cancer that Mr. K had — it obstructed his abdominal vital organs — [the marijuana] really helped calm his stomach," Mrs. K relates. "Up until the last week before he passed away, he would take a little hit. Not, y'know, a stoner hit, but enough to just put his body at ease."
Eventually, Mr. K's digestive system betrayed him, and nearly all of his nutritional needs could only be delivered with a bag and a needle. At the end of Mr. K's life, taking a little weed prior to the simple comfort of ingesting a sip of water by mouth was the only option. "It wouldn't immediately come back out," Mrs. K explains.
Whatever Mrs. K's feelings were on the subject of pot before her husband got sick, she's now in favor of complete legalization across the board. "I'm a big proponent," she says simply.
CBD and the Merhson family
Miriah Merhson and her husband have lived in Crawfordsville all their lives. Their two-year-old son Jameson suffers from Dravet syndrome. (It's pronounced drah – VAY.) According to the Dravet Foundation website, "Dravet syndrome, also known as Severe Myoclonic Epilepsy of Infancy (SMEI), is a rare and catastrophic form of intractable epilepsy that begins in infancy."
Dravet's extremely resistant to a wide range of drugs. Kids with Dravet can suffer epileptic episodes of such length and frequency that every aspect of their development can be affected. The syndrome can result in progressive dementia.
At the age of three months, Jameson began to have "myoclonic jerks", a sudden lifting of the arms as if the child had received an electric shock. "We first blew that off as a normal reaction," says Mershon. "It's a reflex in newborns called the 'startle reflex', where they feel like they're falling, so they throw their arms out."
Other varieties of seizures soon began to appear. Jameson's hands would shake violently. At five months old, the Mershon's son had his first grand mal seizure.
Miriah relays this information from Jameson's hospital room. An ear infection had given her boy a fever, and elevated body temps can trigger seizures. "He had a seizure last night that lasted an hour," she says. "We weren't able to stop it, so we called the ambulance to take him to the hospital."
Jameson's physicians initially prescribed some incredibly powerful drugs to try and stave off the seizures.
"Jameson was taking phenobarbital," says Miriah. "It made him very zombie-like. He was very tired. He wasn't focused on anything."
Jameson is now on a cocktail of four different anti-seizure medications. "He takes Kepra, Topamax, Valproic acid and a new one called Onfi."
The new medications are somewhat better, but, "They do make him drowsy and off balance. They can inhibit his appetite, and Dravet kids can suffer an inability to absorb nutrients. A lot of children with Dravet syndrome are very thin. They have a hard time gaining weight, and the medications don't help that."
Miriah's aware that alternative treatments exist. She knows all about a strain of cannabis called "Charlotte's Web." It's a plant named after a Dravet syndrome sufferer in Colorado, a girl named Charlotte Figi.
Charlotte's Web is high in cannabidiol, or CBD, and low in THC. THC gives a user a range of psychoactive experiences, from euphoria to paranoia. CBD has been proven to help counteract the effects of THC. Too high? Too freaked out? Strains with greater CBD levels have a mellowing effect.
CBD is also the chemical in cannabis that's effective in the treatment of seizures. According to reporting by CNN, after Charlotte Figi began ingesting an oil extracted from the plant, her seizures dropped from 300 per week to two to three a month.
Additionally, the CBD oil has virtually no detectable side effects. Charlotte doesn't get stoned when she ingests the stuff.
Miriah wants the options that the Figis have.
"Any alternative treatment that would allow us to decrease or eliminate some of these pharmaceuticals that have these side effects would be amazing."
Miriah understands that there's a risk: there haven't been any lengthy clinical trials regarding these treatments. "I know there's been a lot of attention on 'We don't know what the long-term side affects are', but the response to that when you have a child who has such a catastrophic disorder as mine is 'What's the side effect of NOT trying something?'
Miriah pauses; takes a breath. "I have this amazingly perfect little boy. He's so strong. He deserves every opportunity that we can give him."
Had the Mershons ever discussed moving to, say, Colorado? Someplace where medicinal weed is legal?
"We have. But as of right now, we're just like every other family that's debated about that. We have relatives here. Our whole lives are here. My husband and I live in the exact same town where we grew up."
The Mershons both have jobs here in Indiana, good jobs. "If it became necessary that I quit my job and stay home with Jameson, then [a move] might be something that we look into a little further."
0.03 is the magic number
There's another kind of low-THC cannabis, and it's a potential goldmine for the state: hemp.
During the 2014 session, the Indiana State Legislature passed a bill allowing the growth of industrial hemp and that bill was signed by Governor Mike Pence on March 26. According to the new law, hemp is defined as a cannabis plant with a content of THC that's less than .03 percent by dry weight.
That's vastly different from the strains that get you wasted. According to information provided by Capt. Dave Bursten of the Indiana State Police, the amount of THC found in the modern recreational stuff can blow past 15 percent. "By contrast, the THC content of marijuana [in] the 1960's was in the 3 percent range; so we're not talking about your grandpa's marijuana," says Bursten.
One of hemp's biggest proponents is Jamie Campbell, a founder and Director of the Indiana Hemp Industries Association. Campbell's been in the ag business all her life, and when she saw family farms that had been devastated by drought, she began to listen to the folks that claimed hemp was another viable — and hardy — plant that could thrive as a cover crop or as part of a rotation. (Campbell knows that more research is needed, but there's some indication that hemp growth is especially beneficial as part of a rotation in fields that also yield soybeans.)
The more Campbell learned, the more she became convinced that classifying hemp farming as a felony meant a missed economic opportunity for the state. "I'm not a left-wing tree hugger," she says, "... but we have this plant that has 25,000 uses."
Campbell brought examples of some of those uses to the Indiana State Legislature as that body was considering the legalization of industrial hemp.
"When I testified before the Senate and the House, I walked in with a big box and everything that I put down, I [told them], 'Look, I bought this from Meijer, I bought this from Wal-Mart' and every daggone thing said 'Made in China' or 'Product of Canada' ... [the legislators] that weren't on board were like, 'Oh, you mean we're already buying this stuff here?' Yes. We're just not allowed to grow it."
So what kind of stuff did she show the lawmakers?
"You've got two parts to the plant: there's the seed and there's the straw," says Campbell. She outlines the various uses of the plant with an evangelist's zeal.
"The seed breaks down into oil. I use hemp oil to cook with. I have a lotion ... that you can buy in most tanning salons. It's got a marijuana leaf on [the label]. ... Oil can be used in paint. When I was in Tennessee ... [I saw] a deck stain made of the stuff."
Campbell tells me the oil can be transformed into biofuels and lubricants. It's edible, she says, loaded with omega oils and proteins. There are lots of recipes, and "hemp seed is great on a salad," according to Campbell.
"The other component is straw — you break the straw down into ... the fiber and the hurd." The fiber's used in everything from paper, rope and twine to door panels in cars.
"The hurd is what they would use for, say, animal bedding ... it's also what they use to make Hempcrete," a building product. "Stucco, plaster, insulation — you know how when you were a kid, you didn't want to touch insulation? It was fiberglass, you would itch — this is completely natural and it breathes."
Campbell wants to partner with one of Indiana's universities to experiment with the stuff. Purdue seems to be the logical choice for hemp research.
The state's being careful about what gets planted. The hemp seeds that Indiana imports (to ensure quality, Campbell hopes we're bringing them in from Canada as opposed to China), a "seed commissioner" will have to sign off on whatever gets put into the ground.
Campbell's understanding of the process aligns with this nugget from Indiana NORML: "Under the recently passed federal Farm Bill, Public Law 113-79 permits the 10 states in which Hemp was legal to grow at the time of passage to grow Hemp without federal interference. Since Indiana had not yet passed Hemp into law, it will be up to [Indiana Seed Commissioner Dr. Robert] Waltz to square things up with the feds."
Legalizing low-THC strains of cannabis is a shift from the philosophy that lumped hemp and pot in the same category as "dangerous narcotics." The prohibitive American drug policy toward marijuana that was spawned in the 1930s Reefer Madness era and ran through the modern "War on Drugs" classified any and all cannabis as a "gateway drug" or a "stepping stone;" a demon weed whose ingestion led the user inexorably to heroin addiction as the smoker needed more powerful chemicals to elicit a buzz.
Legalizing hemp will most likely help the Hoosier state's agribusiness economy, but low-THC strains of cannabis won't be beneficial for cancer patients like the late Mr. K.
And legalized hemp won't help Jameson Merhson, either.
The breeding of high-CBD/low-THC cannabis requires genetic manipulation that starts with what Indiana — and the federal government — still classifies as a narcotic as destructive as heroin or cocaine — the strain called pot.
Governor Mike Pence's attitudes about cannabis that cross the THC threshold of .03% remain negative despite recent polling data that showed a thin majority of Hoosiers favored legalization — with nearly 80 percent of the state's citizens favoring the taxation of pot in much the same way cigarettes are taxed. (The numbers came from a 2013 poll conducted by the Bowen Center for Public Affairs at Ball State University in conjunction with WISH-TV.)
Pence still refers to pot as a "gateway drug." The governor's also pushed for lowering the felony threshold to one-third of an ounce — and backed new sentencing laws that now require felons to serve 75 percent of their time. (Critics of the state's new sentencing guidelines — and a general "get tough on crime" attitude — have been quick to note that the companies behind the privatization of the Hoosier prison system will benefit financially.)
Medical science lines up with the governor's concerns when it comes to adolescent use of pot, though. Dr. J. Michael Bostwick, writing for the Mayo Clinic, notes that "During puberty, a period characterized by significant cerebral reorganization, particularly of the frontal lobes implicated in behavior, the brain is especially vulnerable to adverse effects from exogenous (externally introduced) cannabinoids."
Pot is sometimes viewed as a "reverse gateway" for teens — users were eight times more likely to use tobacco. Yet, according to a National Survey of Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) teens will use booze before they ever try tobacco, pot or dangerous hard drugs. Compared to the addictive qualities of tobacco and alcohol, marijuana has less potential for abuse. On the down side, there's a scientific term for the classic, stereotypical stoner behavior made famous by countless Hollywood portrayals (and Tommy Chong's entire body of work): "amotivational syndrome."
Researchers at Imperial College London, University College London and King's College London discovered that externally introduced cannabinoids were so effective at replacing the same chemicals that the brain naturally produces to give folks the self-satisfaction of completing a task that motivation to do anything — from a term paper to the laundry — dropped off significantly. This was especially true for smokers who used a lot of weed and those who started young, while their brains were still developing. (The study was released in July of 2013.)
Proponents of legalization counter that no one's in favor of an army of 13-year-olds firing up bongs; regulating a legal product would include the same kind of age restrictions the state places on alcohol and cigarettes.
Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, introduced a bill four years ago, a bill simply asking the legislature to take a look at reducing some of Indiana's draconian possession statutes. She knew she had to begin the conversation slowly.
"I started off with a study because frankly everybody was afraid for me to stick my neck out too far," says Tallian.
"Nobody was more surprised than I when it passed. I nearly fell off my chair."
Tallian's committee spent one summer afternoon hearing testimony. "I had people on the committee sort of shaking their heads and saying 'Yeah, maybe we need to do something about these penalties.'
"And this was even from some of the more conservative Republican[s]."
Emboldened by the initial reception, Tallian — who practices law when she's not serving in the Senate — upped the ante the following year.
"The next year I started off with a bill that ... decriminalized small amounts for possession, which meant no jail time — infraction only, like a traffic ticket. There was a provision in there to allow for the growing of industrial hemp. It wasn't a medical marijuana bill, but it said that if you had a note from the doctor — a medical reason why you needed [marijuana] — that would be a defense.
"There was also something in there about research; allowing universities or any of our pharmaceutical companies to do research on cannabis because they hadn't been allowed to. Most of the research that had been done had been done in Europe, because most states didn't even allow educational institutions to do research.
"I filed a similar bill three years in a row now. One year I got a hearing. When Brent Steele (R-Bedford) chaired the committee I got a hearing."
The year that her bill received a hearing, Tallian took a head count; she didn't have the support for passage. It was an election year, and the Senator feels that might've had an impact. "Saving resources on enforcement and incarceration" isn't a real convincing counter to accusations that a candidate's "soft on crime."
Tallian let the bill die without coming to the floor for a vote. The logic: No vote at all wouldn't have the same chilling effect as an outright rejection. She continues to introduce similar bills, though. When asked why, she responds with an anecdote:
"I had a young girl who called me in tears at my law office one day. She told me that when she was 18 she'd been busted at your basic graduation party with some tiny amount of marijuana. She did her community service, paid her fine, did her substance abuse evaluation ... she even did probation for a year.
"She went on to college, she finished four years and she was being sent off to do her student teaching at a local school when the superintendent called her in and waved her criminal history at the girl.
Tallian's voice drips with sarcasm as she utters the phrase "criminal history."
"[The superintendent] said 'Not in my school. You're not teaching in my school. And by the way, find yourself a new career.' "
Tallian's weary of seeing low-dose recreational users being processed by the judicial system. "As an attorney, I've spent countless time in court watching one kid after another plead and I think, 'What a waste of time and energy.'"
But what about the potential social cost; the possibility that a more liberal attitude toward weed will simply give us more addicts? What about the Governor's contention that marijuana really is a "gateway drug," even for adults whose frontal lobes are fully formed?
"I wonder if the governor drinks alcohol," says Tallian curtly. "There's no research that shows that marijuana is any more addictive than alcohol. In fact, it's probably less so. I consider marijuana on a par with alcohol. Even during Prohibition it wasn't illegal to possess alcohol."
So is the Senator in favor of across-the-board legalization? It's one thing to plant your flag in the pro-hemp, pro-medicinal marijuana hill; to fight for the rights of those battling terrible afflictions like Jameson Mershon or Mr. K. It's quite another stance to cast your lot with Hoosiers smoking weed merely for the fun of it.
Tallian returns to comparing marijuana with booze. It's a consistent refrain.
"I don't think we have any business prohibiting recreational marijuana," she says. "With alcohol, we regulate it. We have standards. We have taxes. We have restrictions on who can buy it. We don't allow people to drink and drive. Even though we may have people who misuse it, even though we may have people who become alcoholics. I've seen this personally, in my family — but it doesn't mean that you should make it illegal and put people in jail. That's just wrong."
"Would I take that position? Probably. But I'm not even close to that. I'm in Indiana."
Governor Pence declined our requests for comment on this story.
The weed windfall
Set aside the medicinal values of some strains of cannabis, forget the broad uses for industrial hemp, and you're left with the economics of the legalization of recreational pot: there's gold in them green plants.
Every stoner worth his weight in bud points to Colorado as the Promised Land: the state legalized everything, both medicinal and ultimately, recreational weed. Then they taxed it. Actual tax revenues for the state were estimated to come in at vastly lower levels than Colorado's Governor had claimed (roughly half), but early indications put an annual draw at $57 million in bonus ganja revenue. (That's according to the Colorado Legislative Council, the state's non-partisan accountants.)
What might that be worth to Indiana? Here's a little hypothetical math on the very lowest end of the spectrum:
We'll use a bargain-basement price of $25 for an eighth of an ounce of pot. Indiana troopers seized 2,464 pounds of processed marijuana when they busted local growers in 2013. (That number doesn't include the "raw" plants they eradicated — 96,508.) Selling only the homegrown processed pot in the Hoosier state for a retail total of $7,884,800 and taxing it ONLY at the minimum Colorado "medicinal" tax rate of 2.9 percent would've brought in $228,659.20.
The Rocky Mountain state, however, laid on the sin tax thick as resin: in addition to a 15 percent excise tax paid during the transition from wholesale to retail, a special 10 percent sales tax was tacked on at the point of purchase.
That'd be a windfall for Indiana of well over a million bucks in reefer revenue if, again, we're only counting the marijuana generated by local entrepreneurs.
Of course, the enforcement of anti-marijuana laws means resources are spent, not earned. One of the witnesses at Senator Tallian's pot hearing was a professor from Shenandoah University in Virginia, Jon Gettman, PhD. The numbers he shared (from 2005, in this instance) from the "Bureau of Justice Statistics report[ed] that Criminal Justice expenditures for Indiana (Police, Courts, and Corrections) amounted to about $2.4 billion in 2005. That year marijuana arrests accounted for 6.2 percents of all arrests, resulting in an estimated cost of $149 million."
According to the Vera Institute of Justice, Indiana spent an average of $14,823 in fiscal 2010 per inmate; that's only for incarceration.
There's a financial counter-argument, of course: an Alaskan panel estimated that the total cost of legalization for their state — including regulation, enforcement and pressures on the public health system — would cost taxpayers between $3.7 - $7 million. (By comparison, Alaska's population is just over 735,000, Indiana's over 6.5 million.) Opponents of the study called it a hastily-constructed attempt by the state government to lobby for more cash for specific departments. Additionally, the report didn't account for costs currently associated with the ganja that was already being smoked; its numbers seemed to assume that no one in the state was already using pot illicitly.
Tony Dokoupil, author of The Last Pirate — a memoir about his dad, one of the largest pot smugglers of the 1970s and '80s — also warned about another danger of across-the-board legalization in an April, 2014 interview with TIME magazine: "I certainly don't think we should create a wide-open Coca-Cola-style free market for pot. That does strike me as a public health concern and for the very same reasons we already consider sugar, fat and salt to be a public health concern. Very big businesses have a way of using people's freedoms against them."
Dokoupil insists he's not a proponent of the "War on Drugs" in the way we know it. While he's not a fan of what he calls a "third vice industry," he understands the continued costs of prohibition — he might be dreaming, but he'd prefer a cottage industry that was legal but mostly out of sight.
Trading prohibition for a legal and regulated product would eliminate another problem: the ecological impact of "trespass grows." Pot farmers working outside of the law wreak havoc on the environment. "To really get a lot of bud, you need to make sure the plants get a lot of sunlight and water ... you clear forested slopes and put in irrigation systems and all of that can be pretty environmentally destructive," says Josh Harkinson, who reports on all things weed-related for Mother Jones.
About two-thirds of Hoosier growers are trespass farmers. In 2013 the Indiana Domestic Cannabis Eradication and Suppression Program (a federal program that funnels resources from the Drug Enforcement Administration to organizations like the State Police) wiped out 670 grows, and 434 of those were on private agricultural or publicly owned land.
In Indiana in 2013, 395 people were busted for illegal grows. Growers trading in an unregulated crop feel the need to protect their plants, too – those arrests were accompanied by the seizure of 404 weapons. (There is some cost offset, here, though: The ISP also seized nearly $3 million in other assets from growers, including everything from cash to homes to boats.)
It's our neighbors to the immediate south that are seeing the biggest illicit farming operations. While Indiana's marijuana crop ranks third behind corn and soybeans as a cash generator, pot is the number one agricultural moneymaker in Kentucky and Tennessee, with a take somewhere between $4 million and $5 million for both states apiece.
Why Kentucky or the Volunteer State? It's easy to hide up in the hollers. "It's the same reason you had moonshine there during prohibition," said Harkinson. "It's remote and rugged and far away from the prying eyes of law enforcement."
As far as the broader varieties of cannabis are concerned, there's a generational history in bluegrass and bourbon country, too: in the 19th century, Kentucky grew more hemp than any other state in the nation.
Most of the recreational pot seized by the Indiana State Police comes from California, though, and not Hoosier cornfields. Colorado's the second leading grower of the stuff Hoosier smokers use, followed by cannabis grown in Mexico and smuggled into border states via methods that are becoming more and more creative. Weed's been brought in through underground tunnels or fired over the border using cannons that are similar in design to potato guns.
Harkinson spent time studying California's Emerald Triangle, a three-county spread where growers, in addition to deforesting the local landscape, have loaded their farms with pesticides and rat posion. "[The] poison is being transmitted to predator species like the fisher and the spotted owl." There are reports of creeks and rivers being sucked dry for summer grows, too, and that's a terrible development for NoCal's salmon populations. (Indoor grows are equally problematic: by Harkinson's math, the energy used to raise just four plants can power 26 refrigerators over the same time frame.)
Unlike Indiana, the state of California allows medical marijuana to be sold, but the recreational stuff is still prohibited. If all weed was legal, Harkinson believes the illegal farms would dry up.
"I seriously doubt that the trespass grows would continue to exist if marijuana was legal," said Harkinson. "Once it's legal, it's going to be an agricultural commodity just like anything else. Farmers will grow it where it's cheapest, and in California, that means the Central Valley. That said, the legalization of marijuana is not going to put an end to the trespass grows until [that legalization] happens on a national level."
Despite the present Governor's distaste for the Demon Weed, pot-watchers like Josh Harkinson believe that, much like same-sex marriage, public opinion will shift toward total legalization for all varieties of cannabis and its derivatives. It's only a matter of time before everything's above ground, from low-THC hemp for fabrics and medicines to high-octane hash oil designed for vaping stoners. There could be a bump in the road, natch: "The only confounding factor would be some high-profile disaster. All it takes is one stoned idiot, one high pilot, to do something really stupid, and people may start to question legalization.
"But that still wouldn't undermine the basic argument: people are smoking pot anyway, and it's much better and safer when it's legalized and regulated than to have it sold through a black market." n