Kentucky legislators have introduced a bill to legalize and regulate cannabis for adults over 21, as well allow people to expunge cannabis-related misdemeanors from their records for free. House Bill 420 has gradually picked up sponsors since it was put before the state legislature on January 30, but under a GOP supermajority it is unlikely to be signed into law.
Misdemeanor convictions for cannabis possession or paraphernalia would be eligible for expungement. Under current law, possession is punishable by up to 45 in jail. HB 420 would also create a framework for state-licensed cultivation, which is currently a felony in Kentucky. But the state is also fielding a number of other cannabis-related proposals, as well as the logistics of getting its medical marijuana program off the ground after Gov. Andy Beshear (D) signed that legislation in 2023.
“We know it’s not the time for our legislature to move on adult-use cannabis,” Matthew Bratcher, executive director of Kentucky NORML, told Filter. “We’ve get decrim to work out, we’ve got to get this medical program going. I don’t see them moving on adult use for a bit.”
HB 420’s prospects hinge on a few different factors, starting with tax revenue.
Rep. Rachel Roberts (D) first introduced the bill as HB 90, before withdrawing it to re-introduce under the much-beloved “stoner” reference. HB 420 would tax cannabis sales at 9 percent for both wholesalers and individual consumers, and 30 percent of tax revenue would go to a Social Impact Council and be allocated to equity programs. The bill would also implement certain protections against discrimination by employers, for people who use marijuana outside of work.
Bratcher told Filter that while HB 420’s prospects hinge on a few different factors, the most important is tax revenue.
“We can always use the money in our state budget,” he said. Another factors is “how the medical program shakes out. [If it’s] a pain in the butt, then they may go ahead and say, ‘the heck with it—let’s just regulate it at sale and be done with it.'”
The medical marijuana program is expected to roll out in 2025, but will only be available to people diagnosed with cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder, multiple sclerosis, chronic pain, epilepsy, chronic nausea or muscle spasms. Beshear has been pressuring lawmakers to add more than a dozen other qualifying conditions, which would expand eligibility to nearly half a million additional patients.
“[The supermajority] can do basically whatever they please.”
In 2022, Beshear signed an executive order decriminalizing possession of medical marijuana purchased from licensed dispensaries in other states. Jefferson County, the largest county in Kentucky, stopped prosecuting adult-use marijuana possession under half an ounce in 2019.
But cannabis decriminalization has not been gaining traction at the state level. Rep. Nima Kulkarni (D) has for several consecutive sessions brought legislation to decriminalize possession up to one ounce, as well as expunge prior records, but without success so far.
“We’ve got a supermajority in both chambers so it makes it real difficult for the other party’s governor to push their agenda,” Bratcher told Filter. If Beshear vetoes “something really important, they override it at the end of the session. [They] can do basically whatever they please.”
Kentucky has criminalized Black residents for possession at nearly 10 times the rate it does for white residents. Since 2002, the state has arrested more than 300,000 people on cannabis-related charges. More than half of them were convicted.
Image via Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe