As the Kentucky General Assembly—specifically the Senate—has sat idle on enacting medical cannabis policy reform for yet another session, Gov. Andy Beshear said April 21 that he’s considering taking executive action to effectuate change.
House lawmakers cruised to passage of a bill that aimed at allowing doctors to prescribe medical cannabis to patients for six qualifications by way of a 59-34 vote on March 17. The legislation was sponsored by GOP Rep. Jason Nemes and attracted the co-sponsorship of 22 Republicans and 20 Democrats.
But the Senate killed the bill, again—an earlier version of the legislation passed the House in 2020, before stalling in the Senate, which continued to resist consideration of the issue in 2021 and now in 2022.
Beshear called out that inaction by the upper chamber in his weekly news conference on Thursday.
“This session, like the last one and many before it, the General Assembly did not get the job done despite broad support from the public,” he said.
According to a February 2020 Kentucky Health Issues Poll, nine out of 10 Kentucky adults favor legalizing cannabis for medical purposes.
“It has passed the House the last several years, yet this year, in the Senate, it died,” Beshear said. “It never even got a vote in committee. So, people are ready.”
Previously, the governor said April 7 that he was ready to explore taking action via an executive order should the Senate fail to act. On April 14, the General Assembly adjourned without the Senate taking up Beshear on his request.
Now, the Democratic governor announced April 21 that his administration will be moving forward with a four-step plan on medical cannabis policy:
- Beshear asked his general counsel to begin analyzing options under the law for the governor to consider regarding executive action on medical cannabis.
- His administration will establish a Medical Cannabis Advisory Team.
- He will ask this advisory team to travel around the state and listen to what Kentuckians have to say about medical cannabis.
- And the governor has established a way for Kentuckians to communicate with his office specifically on the topic. They can email the governor’s office at GovMedicalCannabisAdvisoryTeam@ky.gov.
“These are four steps in a process about moving forward to make sure that the people of Kentucky are included, that your voice is heard, and that we can take your desires, your advice, your thoughts, as we consider the legal frameworks for executive action,” he said at the news conference.
But Kentucky Senate President Robert Stivers released a statement Thursday evening that said the public should be concerned with a governor who thinks he can change a state statute by executive orders.
“He simply can’t legalize medical marijuana by executive order; you can’t supersede a statue by executive order because it’s a Constitutional separation of powers violation,” Stivers said.
While the Senate did not act on the House’s medical cannabis legalization bill, Stivers said the General Assembly did initiate an effort to conduct additional research on medical cannabis through the passage of House Bill 604, which was delivered to the governor on April 14.
That legislation aims to establish the Kentucky Center for Cannabis Research at the University of Kentucky to research the efficacy of medical cannabis.
“The governor may speak in favor of medical marijuana, but he still has not signed H.B. 604 that has been sitting on his desk since April 14,” Stivers said in the statement. He added, “The governor has indicated he intends to tax marijuana and we don’t tax medicine in Kentucky. If our governor truly believes marijuana should be used for medicinal purposes, taxing it would be wholly inappropriate.”
Under the House-passed bill that Stivers’ chamber let die without a committee vote, medical cannabis would have included a 12% excise tax, but that tax would have been paid by a cultivator, processor or producer on the actual price of sales made to a dispensary, according to the bill’s text. The tax would not have been added as a separate charge on any sales of the price paid by a dispensary.
In his weekly governor’s address, Beshear pointed out that Kentucky is one of 13 states that has yet to legalize medical cannabis without low-THC restrictions on commercial sales.
“When you look at southern states like Alabama, Florida and Mississippi, they’re allowing treatment for their residents,” he said. “Yeah, we are actually behind Mississippi this time. We can’t make that joke. Mississippi was actually the latest state to permit the use. And their state Legislature had the courage that ours did not.”
Kentucky’s House-passed bill proposed legalizing medical cannabis for cancer, chronic pain, epilepsy/seizure disorder, multiple sclerosis, chronic nausea or cyclical vomiting syndrome, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“For all those who have advocated over the years, from our veterans who are suffering from chronic pain or PTSD to mothers who are seeking help for children suffering from seizures, I want you to know that we not only hear you; we want to hear directly from you,” Beshear said.
The governor did not address the restorative justice aspects associated with legalization.
Under Kentucky’s current law, a first-time offense for the possession of up to 8 ounces of cannabis carries a maximum penalty of 45 days of incarceration and up to a $250 fine, according to reform organization NORML.
Kentucky ranks second in the nation for the largest racial disparity in cannabis arrests, with Black Kentuckians being 9.4 times more likely to be arrested for possession than white Kentuckians, according to reform group Marijuana Policy Project (MPP).