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Medical cannabis bill passes Kentucky Legislature

Senator Steve West delivers speech on Kentucky Senate floor.
Legislative Research Commission
Legislative Research Commission
Republican Sen. Steve West, of Paris, discusses SB 47 on the Senate floor.

It might be one of the most restrictive cannabis policies in the nation, but Kentucky is poised to allow people with some medical ailments to use pot. They just won’t be able to smoke it. And it won’t go into effect until 2025.

Kentuckians with certain serious medical conditions would be able to get a prescription for cannabis under a bill that passed out of the legislature on the last day of this year’s lawmaking session.

The Kentucky House of Representatives passed Senate Bill 47 on Thursday and the measure now only needs to be signed by Gov. Andy Beshear to become law.

The bill would implement one of the most limited medical cannabis policies in the nation, only allowing doctors to prescribe to people with conditions like cancer, multiple sclerosis, chronic pain, epilepsy, chronic nausea and post-traumatic stress disorder.

It also allows the nascent Cannabis Research Center at the University of Kentucky to recommend other conditions that would benefit from cannabis.

The bill would forbid people from smoking cannabis.

Rep. Jason Nemes, a Republican from Louisville and supporter of the bill, said cannabis should only be for people with serious medical conditions.

“If you get caught smoking it and you will go to jail, as you ought to,” Nemes said. “This is not a ‘wink wink, nod nod’ medical program…I’m against recreational, so if you smoke this you’re violating the law.”

Advocates have pushed for the legislature to pass a medical cannabis bill for years, and while the proposal got support in the House, it repeatedly stumbled in the more-conservative Senate.

But the Republican-led legislature had more of a reason to address cannabis this year, after Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear issued an executive order late last year allowing people to possess cannabis legally purchased in other states, as long as they had a doctor’s note.

With Beshear running for reelection this year, the pressure was on for Republicans to take, or at least share, ownership of the cannabis issue, which is overwhelmingly popular in Kentucky.

Still, not everyone is on board. Senate President Robert Stivers, the leading Republican foe of medical pot, from Manchester, still opposed the bill despite a 26-11 vote in his chamber earlier this month.

Rep. Kim Moser, a Republican from Taylor Mill, said lawmakers shouldn’t be charged with approving regulations and setting up government bureaucracy for cannabis.

“Let’s get this right. I appreciate there’s significant lead time to make sure some of these things get ironed out. I’m just uncomfortable passing a bill out that needs so much work,” she said.

If signed by Beshear, the policy won’t go into effect until Jan. 1, 2025.

Sen. Steve West, a Republican from Paris and sponsor of the bill, said the delay will give policymakers enough time to study the issue more.

“You’ll get another bite at the apple to take a look at everything that’s flowing through the regulatory process. And we’ll get another chance to make technical changes moving forward,” West said.

Rep. Keturah Herron, a Democrat from Louisville, said she hoped lawmakers would come up with provisions requiring racial minorities, women and local businesses to be involved in the licensure process.

“One thing that I am a little concerned about or would want to work further on is when these licenses are given out to folks is to make sure that we are doing some heavy regulations on that these are going to Kentucky folks and Kentucky businesses,” she said.

Longtime cannabis advocate Eric Crawford, who uses a wheelchair, said cannabis has helped him avoid using pain killers.

“It’s not a party, it’s not fun to have to rely on drugs. It makes you feel weak. But to find something that works for you and then they tell you you’re a criminal for using it? That’s not cutting it,” he said.

This story has been updated with additional information.

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