Kentucky Becomes 38th State to Legalize Medical Cannabis

    After the Kentucky House of Representatives approved a Senate-passed medical marijuana legalization bill, the governor signed it into law on March 31.

    Shortly after moving through the House Licensing, Occupations and Administrative Regulations Committee earlier on March 30, the full chamber approved the legislation from Sen. Stephen West (R) in a 66-33 vote.

    Gov. Andy Beshear (D) strongly supports the reform, and he rallied citizens to pressure their state representatives to pass the bill earlier in the week.

    With his signature, Kentucky becomes the 38th state in the US with a comprehensive medical cannabis law.

    Ahead of the House vote, Rep. Jason Nemes (R), who has led the charge on medical marijuana in the chamber for the past several sessions, made the case that the legislation is relatively restrictive compared to programs in other states, saying that “this is a no smoke bill, no self-grow and takes a bona fide relationship between the patient and the doctor or the nurse practitioner.”

    Lawmakers “want to make sure that we go slow and deliberate and get this thing right,” he said. “We’ll also obviously watch the administrative process as this unfolds to make sure that everything is in order.”

    “This has been a long time coming.”

    Rep. Daniel Grossberg (D) also spoke in support of the bill, saying that “many people continue to oppose the legalization of medical marijuana due to misconceptions and misinformation.”

    “Some worry it will lead to increased drug abuse or that it will be a gateway drug. However, the reality is that medical marijuana has been legalized in over 30 states, and in those states opioid use has decreased not increased,” he said.

    “The legalization of medical marijuana could be an economic boon to Kentucky,” Grossberg continued. “It would create jobs in the cannabis industry and generate tax revenue for our state. We have an opportunity to be at the forefront of this growing industry and we shouldn’t let it pass us by.”

    Advocates had been optimistic about the bill’s prospects given that the House has advanced similar measures in past sessions, only to have them stall in the Senate. Things proved different this year, however, with the other body taking the lead in advancing the issue.

    “This has been a long time coming,” West, the legislation’s Senate sponsor, told the House panel on Thursday, saying that there have been “hundreds and hundreds of changes on the bill” as lawmakers have considered the reform over several years.

    West said earlier this month during a Senate meeting that after initially being skeptical of the issue that he’s “now convinced that medical marijuana, provided to our citizens through a tightly-regulated system, can provide some important relief to our constituents.”

    “It’s time for Kentucky to join the other 37 states in the United States that allow medical marijuana as an option for their citizens,” he said.

    Here are the provisions of the bill, SB 47:

    * Patients with recommendations from doctors or advanced nurse practitioners can qualify to use cannabis if they have cancer, severe pain, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, muscle spasms or spasticity, chronic nausea or cyclical vomiting, post-traumatic stress disorder or any other medical condition or disease which the Kentucky Center for Cannabis deems appropriate.

    * Smoking marijuana is prohibited, but patients can still access raw cannabis for vaporization.

    * Home cultivation is not allowed.

    * Patients can possess a 30-day supply of cannabis in their residence and a 10-day supply on their person.

    * Patient registration will only last up to 60 days, and the initial visit must be in person.

    * There will be a 35 percent THC cap on flower marijuana products and 70 percent cap for concentrates. Edibles cannot exceed 10 milligrams per serving.

    * Medical cannabis will be exempt from sales and excise taxes.

    * The Cabinet for Health and Family Services will be charged with overseeing the program, including setting regulations and issuing business licenses.

    * License categories include three tiers of cultivators as well as producers, processors, safety compliance facilities and dispensaries.

    * Local governments can opt out of allowing cannabis businesses to operate, but citizens could petition to have their municipalities opt back in.

    * A nine-member Board of Physicians and Advisors will be created, consisting of seven physicians and two advanced nurse practitioners.

    * Regulations will need to be finalized by January 1, 2024.

    * The state Board of Physicians and State Board of Nursing will be responsible for certifying practitioners to recommend cannabis.


    House members blocked consideration of a floor amendment on March 30 that would have restricted available forms of medical cannabis, prevented regulators from adding new qualifying conditions without approval from lawmakers, and made other changes to the bill.

    The House passed a medical cannabis legalization bill last year, and in a prior session, but they died without action in the Senate. That’s why advocates started on the Senate side this session.

    Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer said the bill’s “narrowly focused approach” won him over.

    One obstacle for the reform has been Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer (R), who’s steadfastly opposed broad medical cannabis policy reform, arguing that it’s a fast-track to adult-use legalization.

    More recently, however, he said that he would not stand in the way if the bill had enough support to pass. And this month he voted to support the bill in committee, saying that its “narrowly focused approach” won him over. He also backed the measure on the Senate floor.

    The governor called on the legislature to legalize medical cannabis “this session” during his State of the Commonwealth speech in January, saying that it’s an essential reform for the state to make sure it is “treating people right.”

    The speech came after Beshear signed a pair of executive orders in November, allowing patients who meet certain criteria to possess up to 8 ounces of medical cannabis legally obtained from dispensaries in other states and also regulate the sale of delta-8 THC products.

    Republican gubernatorial candidate Ryan Quarles, the state’s current agriculture commissioner, recently said that he’d work with lawmakers to enact medical cannabis legalization within his first year in office if elected.

    Advocates stepped up their efforts to pressure lawmakers to enact reform this session, with groups like Kentucky Moms for Medical Cannabis (KMMC) and Kentucky NORML making their position clear that the issue has stalled for too long in the Bluegrass State.

    Last year, the governor released a report from a medical marijuana advisory committee that he formed, and he said in September that he would be taking its findings into account as he continues to consider executive actions for reform.

    The governor previewed plans to advance the issue of medical marijuana administratively last year, criticizing the Senate for failing to heed the will of voters and for “obstructing” reform by refusing to even give a hearing to a House-passed bill.

    Beshear also voiced support for broader marijuana legalization in 2020, saying 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.

    Earlier in March, the Kentucky legislature also sent a bill to the governor’s desk that would regulate the sale of delta-8 THC products. Beshear signed that measure into law.

    In January, a lawmaker filed legislation for the 2023 session that would put an adult-use marijuana legalization referendum on the ballot for voters to decide on, but it has not advanced.



    Update, March 31: This article has been edited to reflect the bill being signed into law on March 31.

    Photograph by Mohammad Faisal Pirzada via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 4.0

    This story was originally published by Marijuana Moment, which tracks the politics and policy of cannabis and drugs. Follow Marijuana Moment on Twitter and Facebook, and sign up for its newsletter.

    • Kyle is Marijuana Moment‘s Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

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