The case for legalizing medical marijuana was made to a standing-room-only Bartholomew County audience Monday.

State Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, whose district includes a small portion of the county, took an opportunity during Monday’s Third House event in Columbus to explain why he introduced bills before Indiana General Assembly that would legalize or promote using marijuana and hemp for medicinal purposes.

Lucas’ bills were among a number of topics — including redistricting and education — discussed during the first Third House event of the legislative season at Mill Race Center. More than 60 people crowded into an instruction room at Mill Race Center for the first of this winter’s weekly sessions, sponsored by the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce.

The two bills introduced by Lucas are:

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House Bill 1106, which permits the cultivation, dispensing and use of medical marijuana by persons with serious medical conditions.

House Bill 1137, which promotes the growing of industrial hemp and lessens restrictions on byproducts such as cannabidiol, better known as CBD oil.

Lucas said he wants to promote use of industrial hemp, which was legalized in the 2014 federal Farm Bill, as a potential new agricultural economy for Indiana. The CBD oil derived from industrial hemp is being used by an Indiana University physician for treating opioid addicts, Lucas said. Such a use could end up saving the lives of up to 600 Hoosiers who would otherwise die this year from overdoses, the Seymour lawmaker said.

Medical marijuana, which Lucas said is a different plant from industrial hemp, contains a chemical that is an effective pain treatment under several circumstances, he said.

“I’m not pushing for recreational use of marijuana — only medical,” Lucas said.

When retired Bartholomew County farmer Don Strietelmeier expressed concern that marijuana was a gateway drug, Lucas said prescribed medication has proven to be a far greater threat in creating addicts.

Lucas had much of the morning program’s time to himself after Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, and Sen. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, had to leave early for Statehouse commitments. Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, a Third House regular, could not attend Monday’s Third House meeting because of illness, he said.

Redistricting

Walker’s early departure enabled him to arrive at the Statehouse in time to chair a meeting of the Senate Elections Committee, which took up his Senate Bill 326. The bill, which establishes redistricting standards for congressional and state legislative districts when district maps are redrawn three years from now, was approved 8-0 and will next be heard by the full Senate.

Under Walker’s bill, districts should be drawn to the extent possible in ways that avoid splitting pockets of voters with common cultural, ethnic, political or socio economic interests. They also should be drawn compactly and in ways that avoid splitting existing boundaries set by local governments, the bill says.

However, a provision allows lawmakers to deviate from the standards when working on the maps — as long as reasons for each change are publicly explained and documented.

Walker said he intends to use a study published last fall by the Election Law Journal to assure his fellow GOP lawmakers that valid and politically unbiased districts can be drawn through random population distribution. The paper, “The Impact of Political Geography on Wisconsin Redistricting”, was written by Dr. Jowei Chen of the University of Michigan, Walker said.

But Walker’s measure falls far short of a comprehensive redistricting overhaul that good-government groups have sought for years. Walker acknowledged his bill was a “baby step” in addressing redistricting.

Indiana’s legislative and congressional districts are currently drawn to favor Republicans. That’s because the Legislature, which oversees the once-in-a-decade effort that comes after the census, is in GOP control. In the past, when Democrats had more power, the maps tilted in their favor.

That’s problematic, according to advocates, who argue that such a process allows lawmakers to pick and choose their voters, rather than voters picking and choosing their elected officials. That can lead to voter apathy and a limited turnout on election day, according to advocates.

“We hope there would be some neutral body that would develop the standards and review the maps,” said Debbie Asberry of the League of Women Voters of Indianapolis.

A number of lawmakers support a larger overhaul of the redistricting process, including House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis.

Despite support from influential lawmakers, past legislation on the issue has failed to advance.

Rep. Smith, chairman of the House Elections and Apportionment Committee, received criticism last February for refusing to allow a committee vote on the establishment of an independent commission to draw legislative maps. The proposed legislation, he contended, was flawed.

Still to be seen is how the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on several redistricting cases from other states that it’s currently considering. That will likely impact how Indiana proceeds.

Education

Most of Koch’s comments on education focused on defending the Indiana Choice Scholarship program.

Advocates say the program allows students in lower-income families to receive vouchers to attend private schools. But opponents say the voucher program takes much-needed state funds from public schools without demonstrating any academic benefit.

Indiana Department of Education statistics show that school choice doesn’t necessarily mean dissatisfaction of public schools in the Columbus area, Koch said.

Those statistics show that 44 percent of the 790 Bartholomew County students who use the Indiana Choice Scholarship program choose to go to another public school. The 56 percent balance of voucher users attend a non-public school, the research showed.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Third House schedule

Third House Sessions, which allows the public to ask questions and express concerns to their state lawmakers, is scheduled to be held weekly through at least March 12.

Sponsored by the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, the sessions begin at 7:30 a.m. every Monday at Mill Race Center, 900 Lindsey St.

If the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. decides to cancel classes on a Monday due to inclement weather, the Third House sessions will also be cancelled that day.

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.