A new Republican-led bill to legalize medical marijuana in Kentucky landed in the state legislature this week. The measure is an update to lead sponsor Rep. Jason Nemes’s (R) past legalization efforts and includes a number of conservative-minded adjustments aimed at wining broad support among lawmakers, including leaders of his own party who control the legislative agenda.
Nemes filed a medical legalization bill in 2020 that soundly passed the House but later died in the Senate without a vote amid the early part of the coronavirus pandemic. He reintroduced the legislation for the 2021 session, but it did not advance. In recent months, Nemes has working to build support for a new, scaled-back version of the bill for 2022 and in October said he was confident it could pass if only legislative leaders have the “courage” to allow a vote on it.
The latest version of the bill, HB 136, introduced Tuesday, would establish a comparatively restrictive program, prohibiting both the home cultivation of marijuana and the smoking of cannabis flower. Whole-plant products would be allowed under the bill, but patients would be required to vaporize them.
Regulators would set many of the program’s specific rules—for example qualifying conditions for medical cannabis and personal possession limits—during an implementation period later this year if the bill passes. At a minimum, the conditions will include any type of cancer, epilepsy and seizure disorders, multiple sclerosis, nausea or vomiting and chronic, severe, intractable or debilitating pain.
“Overall it’s a pretty solid but conservative bill,” Kevin Caldwell, Southeast legislative manager for Marijuana Policy Project told Marijuana Moment.
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The program would launch in early 2023 if the legislation is approved.
The narrow approach is designed to win support among GOP leaders in the state Senate, who’ve killed past versions of Nemes’s proposal. Senate Floor Leader Damon Thayer (R), for example, steadfastly opposes the change, having warned that it’s a fast track to full legalization.
“I know my constituents are for it,” Thayer, who owns a whiskey distillery, said during a televised panel on Monday. “But this is a republic, and they elect us to go to Frankfort and make decisions on their behalf—and if they don’t like it, they can take it out on me in the next election.”
Others remain wary, such as House Speaker Pro Tempore David Meade (R), who said at the event that he’s still “on the fence” about medical cannabis.
Democratic leaders from both chambers, meanwhile, said earlier this week that legalizing medical marijuana will be a top legislative priority for this year’s session, which kicked off on Tuesday.
Gov. Andy Beshear (D) also supports legalization, saying last month that “It’s time we joined so many other states in doing the right thing.” He added that Kentucky farmers would be well positioned to grow and sell cannabis to other states.
Among the more innovative parts of the new bill, said Caldwell at MPP, are provisions that would ban discrimination against cannabis patients in areas such as child custody matters and organ transplants. Students who use medical marijuana would be permitted to consume it on campus under the administration of a school nurse.
The legislation would also establish what it calls a “rating system” system to track at least 12 major terpenes within each cannabis strain available in the commonwealth.
Patients would be able to have a 10-day supply of marijuana products outside the home and up to a 30-day supply secured at their residence. Those amounts are still poorly defined, however, as the bill leaves it to regulators to determine what constitutes a day’s worth of cannabis.
Products would be subject to a 12 percent excise tax and taxes on gross receipts, with revenues split between state and local governments. Of all state revenue, 13.75 percent would go to local law enforcement to help enforce the new law.
Business licensing would be fairly flexible, with no caps on license numbers or rules about vertical integration, as some other states have implemented.
Caldwell at MPP said the group generally supports the bill, though there are things he’d like to change. He said the tax rate seems high for medical cannabis, which in many states is not taxed at all, and that he would prefer to see more qualifying conditions spelled out in bill’s text rather than left to regulators.
But he deferred to the bill’s sponsors, noting the precarious path the bill must travel on its way to passage. “These legislators are much more familiar with their own political landscape than necessarily we are,” he said, “and we know that there’s very serious opposition on the Senate side.”
Nemes, the bill’s lead sponsor, said in October that he believes lawmakers will vote for the measure if only legislative leaders give them a chance. “There’s no doubt about it—we have the votes for it in the House and Senate,” he told colleagues at a committee meeting. “It passed 65 to 30 in the House [in 2020] when we were told it wouldn’t pass. We need to have the courage to vote.”
While Beshear, the govenror, has said that his focus will be on getting medical cannabis enacted in the coming legislative session, he said he also supports legislation introduced by Rep. Nima Kulkarni (D) in November that would prevent people from being incarcerated over marijuana for any use, saying he’s in favor of that policy.
Kulkarni’s bill would legalize the possession and personal cultivation of cannabis, but it doesn’t provide a regulatory framework for commercial sales.
A poll released in 2020 found that nine out of 10 Kentucky residents support legalizing medical marijuana, and almost 60 percent say cannabis should be legal under “any circumstances.”
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