Indiana's branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) is tackling Indiana's drug legislation on two fronts — medical marijuana and industrial hemp.

Beth Soloe, head of Indiana NORML, presented her medical marijuana bill to State Sen. Vi Simpson (D — Ellettsville) on May 12 at her Indianapolis office. Soloe's bill, which is designed after California's Compassionate Use Act of 1996, would protect medical marijuana users, their physicians and licensed medical marijuana growers and distributors from prosecution.

Accompanying her was local Bloomington gynecologist Dr. Clark Brittain. Brittain, who has practiced medicine for over 25 years, is an expert on medical marijuana and called it "one of the safest pharmaceuticals we could hope to have."

The bill itself names medical marijuana as a potential treatment for "AIDS, anorexia, arthritis, cachexia (a disease-caused wasting of muscle mass), cancer, glaucoma, migraine, persistent muscle spasms and severe nausea."

According to Soloe, Simpson was "very supportive" of the bill and pledged to do her part in getting the bill before the Indiana state legislature.

"Senator Simpson understood the importance of patients' rights," said Soloe.

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Two days later, Soloe and Attorney Steve Dillon, chairman of NORML's executive board of directors and Monroe County resident, met with State Sen. Glenn Howard (D — Indianapolis) to discuss the use of industrial hemp.

Though hemp is a member of the plant species Cannabis sativa L., the differences between it and marijuana are profound. Hemp is harvested commercially worldwide in over 30 countries, including Japan, Canada and the nations of the European Union.

A tall, fibrous plant similar to flax, hemp is used in making textiles, paper, paints, clothing, plastics, cosmetics, foodstuffs, insulation, animal feed and other products.

Its most important practical use, however, is as a clean, renewable fuel source. According to Stanley E. Manahan, author of Environmental Chemistry, farming only 6 percent of the continental U.S. acreage with biomass crops would provide all of America's gas and oil energy needs. In fact, each acre of hemp grown would yield an estimated 1,000 gallons of cleaner-burning biomass ethanol.

Howard, ranking minority member of the Commerce and Transportation standing Senate committee, said that these were facts of which every legislator should be aware.

"I'm preparing copies of the same information packet I presented to Senator Howard and sending them to every Indiana legislator," said Soloe.

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Current U.S. law prevents states from deciding whether to allow farmers to grow industrial hemp, but this restriction could be changed. The Industrial Farming Hemp Act of 2005, currently under review by House committees, seeks to amend the Controlled Substances Act and exclude industrial hemp from the definition of marijuana.

The act would also empower each state with "exclusive authority" to regulate growing and processing hemp.

Soloe is optimistic about making Indiana's legislators aware of these issues, but she realizes that the reality of seeing her bills brought before the legislation will take hard work — and time.

"We've got to find GOP support for our bills for Indiana's legislators to take them seriously," she said.

Soloe said her next step is to get back on the road, educating Hoosiers about the benefits of medical marijuana and industrial hemp.

"We need grassroots, bi-partisan support," she said. "If we have that, I think we can get it done."

Kris Kolish can be reached at kkolish@indiana.edu.