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Price on Politics: Medical Cannabis in Kentucky

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The legalization of marijuana in any form has long been a contentious issue in Kentucky and across the United States. At the federal level, marijuana has been illegal since 1937. Cannabis is also illegal in all forms in the commonwealth, though the law has been relaxed in recent years.

In April of last year, Governor Andy Beshear announced the creation of the Team Kentucky Medical Cannabis Advisory Committee, announcing the members of the committee in June. The committee toured the state this summer, listening to Kentuckians and getting their perspectives on the issue. Upon conclusion of the four town hall meetings held in Pikeville, Campbell County, Frankfort and Hopkinsville, the committee issued a report detailing what they heard from Kentuckians from all corners of the commonwealth.

Last summer I had the opportunity to tour with the committee as part of an internship with the communications and legislative directors of the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet. I attended the town hall meetings held in Pikeville, Campbell County and Frankfort, getting the opportunity to listen to the testimony given by Kentuckians to the committee.

I was surprised by what I heard during the process. There are Kentuckians out there who are struggling every day with medical problems that cause constant or near-constant suffering. There were veterans who spoke to the committee about how using medical cannabis helped them with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or other mental health-related issues. Mothers and guardians spoke about the relief their children would receive from being able to use medical cannabis. Survivors of traumatic accidents spoke about how medical cannabis would allow them to live normal lives, ones not ruled by constant pain and strict medication schedules. The list goes on.

During the town hall in Campbell County on the campus of Northern Kentucky University, a mother named Erin Conley stepped up to the microphone and told the committee the story of her fourteen-year-old son. He suffers from a disease that requires medications with side effects that are almost worse than the disease – by my count, the mother listed 42, all of which are quoted in the committee’s report.

This means her son cannot live a normal life. He cannot be left alone for fear of seizures. He cannot stay the night at a friend’s house or play video games like most fourteen-year-old boys do. What would greatly improve the boy’s quality of life and allow him to live a normal life? Medical cannabis.

The report the committee created and published includes quotes and stories similar to these, each one heartbreaking. If you would like to hear from the speakers themselves, I encourage you to watch clips of the town halls, all of which were recorded and posted on the committee’s YouTube page.

Measures to legalize medical marijuana have failed in the Kentucky legislature for years. During the 2022 legislative session the House of Representatives passed House Bill 136, which would have legalized it in the commonwealth. It passed the House with 59 yes votes, 34 no votes and seven representatives not voting. Senate President Robert Stivers did not allow the bill a vote in the Senate, ending the process. In the ongoing 2023 regular legislative session two bills have been introduced to legalize medical cannabis, House Bill 22 and Senate Bill 51.

In recent years there has been a push in Kentucky to legalize medical cannabis in the commonwealth. Organizations like Kentucky NORML, Kentucky Moms for Medical Cannabis and Kentuckians for Medical Marijuana are among those pushing for legalization. Governor Andy Beshear has pushed the state legislature to take action and has taken action himself.

Following the advisory committee’s report, Beshear signed two executive orders concerning medical cannabis. The first allows Kentuckians to legally purchase medical marijuana if they are suffering from certain medical conditions. The second regulates the sale of Delta-8, a type of marijuana that has lower THC levels.

I cannot begin to fathom why nothing has been done to help these Kentuckians. They just want to get well so they can lead normal lives, but they are unable to do so. Simply legalizing the use of medical marijuana could change the lives of countless Kentuckians.

Instead, Republican members of the state legislature call for more research or call legalization for medical purposes a gateway to the legalization of recreational use. Republican Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer went so far as to make it clear in a 2022 panel with KET that though he recognizes that a majority of Kentuckians support legalization of medical cannabis, he would not vote in favor of it.

The need for research is simply not needed, however. 37 states and the District of Columbia have already legalized use of medical marijuana. The research has been done elsewhere and it has proven that medical cannabis can help a wide variety of health problems.

Only 21 states – less than half of the United States – have legalized the use of recreational marijuana. Kentucky does not have to be one of these states if it legalizes the plant for medical use. Governor Andy Beshear has shown no signs that he supports the legalization of recreational use.

A key issue for those against legalization of medical marijuana is that of homegrow, or Kentuckians being able to grow their own cannabis for medicinal purposes. This is a valid criticism. Legalization will require regulation that homegrow would not allow for.

Governor Beshear has not expressed his support for home growing, however. Medical cannabis could be a great benefit to the agriculture industry in Kentucky. Outlawing homegrow and regulating the growth by farmers across the commonwealth could prove to be a large moneymaker for Kentuckians, allowing for even more economic growth on top of the already record-breaking growth that has occurred while Beshear has been in office. In 2018, hemp processors earned $57.75 million in product sales and farmers were paid $17.75 million for their part in the process. Were medical cannabis legalized, similar or higher numbers could be shown.

In 2018, hemp was taken off the list of controlled substances in Kentucky. According to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, “no person can grow, handle (possess), or process hemp plants, viable seed, leaf or floral materials without a hemp license issued by [the department].” The same regulation and care can be taken if medical cannabis is legalized.

It is time for the Kentucky state legislature to legalize medical marijuana use. If they do it right, all their concerns can be taken care of, making sure it is an industry that is solely for medical use while assisting farmers and the Kentucky economy.

While the commonwealth can no longer be on the front lines of medical cannabis legalizations, it has the benefit of looking at the 37 states that have already legalized it to see what works and what does not. 

The health and safety of Kentuckians should never be a political issue, yet Kentucky Republican Senate leadership have made it one. It is time for the legislature to begin at least acting like it cares about the health and futures of Kentuckians. No one should have to live in constant pain while there is a remedy out there that is proven to work. It is time to put aside the wants and needs of the Republican party and their reelections and instead put first the health, needs and future of every single Kentuckian.

It is now in the hands of the state legislature. The beginning of the 2023 regular legislative session occurred during the first week of January. After this first week, legislators went home, with the second part of the session set to begin on Feb. 7. The issue of medical cannabis is once again in the hands of the legislature. There will no doubt be a bill to legalize marijuana for medical purposes and it is time for our representatives in Frankfort to pass it.

Commentary editor Price Wilborn can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @pricewilborn.

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