The ball is back in the Senate’s court for medical cannabis in Kentucky.
House lawmakers cruised to passage of legislation that aims to make Kentucky the 38th state to legalize medical cannabis during a 59-34 vote on March 17.
The legislation, House Bill 136, would allow doctors to prescribe medical cannabis to patients by Jan. 1, 2023, for six qualifying conditions: cancer, chronic pain, epilepsy/seizure disorder, multiple sclerosis, chronic nausea or cyclical vomiting syndrome, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to the bill’s text.
The proposal would prohibit smoking as a form of use, and home cultivation would not be allowed.
In particular, PTSD was added as a floor amendment by Democratic Rep. Rachel Roberts, who was one of three Kentucky lawmakers who introduced an adult-use cannabis proposal last month.
The medical bill is sponsored by Republican Rep. Jason Nemes, whose crafting led to the broad bipartisan co-sponsorship of 20 Democrats and 22 Republicans in the House. During the committee process earlier this month, Nemes stressed his opposition to adult-use legalization.
“The best part about this bill is it lets sick people get safe product,” he said before the House Judiciary Committee, which advanced the legislation via a 15-1 vote on March 10. “This is not a wink, wink, nod, nod to get to recreational.”
Eric Crawford, a legalization advocate, testified in support of H.B. 136 before the committee, describing his personal struggles living as a paraplegic following a car accident involving an 1,800-pound cow landing on his head roughly two decades ago, the Herald Leader reported.
“Medical cannabis allows me to be a more productive member of society and gives me a better quality of life,” he said. “It helps me be a better husband, son and friend. There’s not one of you on this committee that would think I’d be better off taking opioids.”
Rather than continue to criminalize sick people under Kentucky’s current laws, Democratic Rep. Al Gentry, a co-sponsor of H.B. 136, encouraged his House colleagues on Thursday to pass the legislation so that people like Crawford could move on and live happy lives, The Associated Press reported.
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.
“I know real people that had their lives turned around by these products, and a lot of them are living in the closet or living in secrecy because they feel like they’re a criminal,” Gentry said.
Still, House lawmakers held reservations over the normalization of cannabis under medical legalization as a gateway to adult-use legalization, the AP reported. Republican Rep. Chris Fugate suggested normalization would worsen drug addiction problems in the state.
“The common denominator of 99.9% of the drug addiction problem in America started with marijuana,” said Fugate, who did not offer scientific evidence to back that claim.
With House passage, the legislation now heads to a less-receptive Senate. An earlier version of the bill passed the House in a 65-30 vote in 2020 before stalling in the Senate, which continued to resist consideration of the issue in 2021.
The upper chamber’s pushback came on the heels of a February 2020 Kentucky Health Issues Poll that showed nine out of 10 Kentucky adults favored legalizing cannabis for medical purposes.
The lack of reform has had wide-ranging consequences in the state.
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).
In 2019, Kentucky law enforcement officers made more than 4,200 arrests for cannabis, and that was with only 82% of the state’s enforcement agencies reporting their numbers, according to MPP