Kentucky is one of 13 states remaining without medical or adult-use cannabis legalization.
And although no state has enacted an adult-use program without first installing a medical cannabis framework, a trio of Democratic state lawmakers in the Bluegrass State are hoping to go straight to the punch.
Rep. Rachel Roberts, Sen. David Yates and Senate Minority Leader Morgan McGarvey introduced LETT’s (Legalize, Expunge, Treat and Tax) Grow legislation, which they advertised as a comprehensive approach to adult-use legalization during a Feb. 17 press conference. They intend to file the bill in both legislative chambers.
The four components of the proposed legislation aim to:
- Create a new signature, Kentucky-proud industry for farmers;
- Erase misdemeanor convictions for thousands of low-level cannabis offenders, saving millions of dollars in the state’s criminal justice system;
- Fund substance use disorder treatment facilities and providers throughout Kentucky; and
- Create new state revenues through a 6% sales tax on adult-use cannabis, while allowing local governments to levy licensing fees.
The bill’s crafting has been more than a year in the works, Roberts said.
“Our legislation is the comprehensive plan that Kentuckians deserve, and it builds on what has worked in other states while avoiding their mistakes,” she said in the press conference. “This would be a boom for our economy and farmers alike, plus gives state and local governments a major new source of revenue.”
While the bill does not intend to be a panacea for all the ails in the state, Kentucky stands to gain upward of $100 million a year in tax revenue if its sales mirror those in the neighboring states of Michigan and Illinois, Roberts said.
Under LETT’s Grow, Roberts said 30% of revenue generated would go toward substance abuse treatment programs and also for minority, small-business and education grants, while 70% would go into the state’s general fund during the formative years of the program.
“Make no mistake, Kentuckians are growing cannabis. They are selling cannabis. They are consuming cannabis,” she said. “We just aren’t regulating it for their safety or benefiting from the tax revenue it should be generating. We are leaving money on the table, and at the same time we are ignoring the wants of our citizens.”
According to a 2020 Kentucky Health Issues Poll, 90% of Kentuckians supported legalizing medical cannabis in 2019, while 59% supported allowing it under any circumstances and 49% were in favor of allowing residents to buy and use cannabis for recreational purposes.
The LETT’s Grow legislation would create a Cannabis Control Board under a Cannabis Oversight Commission that would mirror the work of the state’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and be tasked with regulating an adult-use market from seed to sale.
Helping the board would be four advisory committees focused on medicinal and adult-use cultivation and social equity, while a separate social impact council would use a portion of state proceeds to develop and administer scholarship programs and award grants to groups that have historically been marginalized or adversely affected by substance use, Roberts said.
“What we’ve done with this bill is set a strong framework with narrow guardrails that give the Cannabis Oversight Commission broad latitude within those guardrails,” she said. “We haven’t defined every license level in this bill. We’ve created an oversight commission that will be the experts, who will come to the table and define those parameters.”
Under the bill, local municipalities would have the opportunity to opt out of the state-legal program. Although, the incentive for them to opt in includes the ability for counties and cities to raise money via licensing fees.
Yates also pointed to the restorative justice aspect of legalization.
“In Kentucky in 2018, we had 7,600 people arrested for marijuana offenses, most of them possession,” he said. “By decriminalizing low-level marijuana, we literally open up the courts. We let police officer reprioritize their major issues. We’ve had an outbreak in violent crime, theft issues here. Marijuana is not the issue. Marijuana is not the problem. But by this legislation, marijuana can be part of the solution.”
Meanwhile, McGarvey talked about how Kentucky continues to criminalize cannabis all while it’s a state that remains at the epicenter of the country’s opioid crisis.
The Senate minority leader also said how it bothered him to watch on the sidelines as Mississippi become the 37th state to legalize medial cannabis. Without action, Kentucky will remain an outlier behind the reform curve, he said.
“We continue to prescribe opiates to people in pain: morphine,” McGarvey said. “But we’re not able to prescribe marijuana for some people who could get comfort when they have cancer, when they see their loved one nauseous and unable to eat? This bill allows for that type of comprehensive structure, where we can legalize marijuana, we can reap the economic benefits from growing it, from taxing the sale of it, from creating the business environment here, from using it towards criminal justice reform and, yes, towards giving people who need that avenue of relief, relief when they go to a doctor.”
Also involved in the cannabis reform push in Kentucky, Republican Rep. Jason Nemes filed House Bill 136 to create a medical cannabis program in the state. An earlier version of the bill passed the House in a 65-30 vote in 2020, before stalling in the Senate.
In addition, Democratic Rep. Nima Kulkarni pre-filed two cannabis bills ahead of Kentucky’s 2022 legislation session to decriminalize and legalize adult-use cannabis.
Concluding her remarks during the Feb. 17 press conference, Roberts said the LETT’s Grow bill “would put Kentucky, almost overnight, at the epicenter of a multibillion dollar business. We shouldn’t have to wait another year to reap these considerable benefits.”