A slim majority of Kentucky voters is ready to legalize medical marijuana, according to a Herald-Leader/WKYT Bluegrass Poll.
The survey asked 1,082 registered voters whether they favored or opposed allowing the use of medical marijuana in Kentucky; 52 percent were in favor, 37 percent were opposed and 12 percent were not sure.
Support for medical marijuana was highest in the 18-34 age range, at 60 percent, and lowest among voters 65 and older, at 35 percent. Democrats were more likely to say they favored allowing medical marijuana than Republicans, with 58 percent of Democrats and 43 percent of Republicans supporting legalization of marijuana for medical purposes.
Support was slightly higher in the more urban areas of the state than in rural Western and Eastern Kentucky.
The survey was conducted Jan. 30 to Feb. 3 by SurveyUSA and in partnership with The Courier-Journal and WHAS-TV in Louisville. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
At least 20 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws allowing some use of marijuana to treat medical conditions, and voters in Colorado and Washington have legalized recreational marijuana.
The issue remains controversial in more socially conservative states, such as Kentucky, where law enforcement officials have tried for decades to eradicate marijuana cultivation.
But a shift in the public's thinking has some lawmakers in Kentucky's General Assembly reconsidering that stance.
"That is a trend that is developing nationwide. It's actually on the ballot to be voted on in Florida," House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said last week. "There does seem to be in the public a growing awareness that the medical marijuana issue is different from the drug issue, legalizing the drug for recreational purposes."
State Sen. Perry Clark, D-Louisville, has sponsored legislation repeatedly to legalize medical marijuana. During a legislative hearing on the issue in January, two parents told lawmakers how an oil made from marijuana — with very little of the high-inducing drug tetrahydrocannabinol — had helped their children cope with seizures.
Such arguments, Clark said, have convinced many people that marijuana laws are too restrictive.
"That's a big movement from just a few years ago; instead of 52 (percent), it would have been 30," Clark said. "It's a lot of education."
People like Jaime Montalvo, president of Kentuckians for Medicinal Marijuana, have been lobbying lawmakers for years. Montalvo, who has multiple sclerosis, said marijuana helps with pain and muscle spasms, eases his ability to walk and helps him sleep. He said lawmakers often are receptive to the group's message — in private.
"But they are not public about it," Montalvo said. "It's like a taboo subject, and they don't want to talk about it."
Clark said he didn't think his bill stands much chance of passing this year, but a narrower effort might.
State Sen. Julie Denton, R-Louisville, on Wednesday filed a bill to allow the use of cannabidiol, the oil some parents credit with dramatically reducing seizures in their children, as long as it is given on the recommendation of a doctor associated with a research hospital or if the patient is in a clinical trial sponsored by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Denton said last week that the Bluegrass Poll results mirrored those of a survey she conducted recently with her own constituents. Her survey showed support was even higher for legalizing cannabidiol.
"I'm hopeful that the oil bill this year will pass, and the next thing we can make inroads on is (medical marijuana) for cancer patients only," Denton said.
That, she said, probably won't happen this year, "but probably in the future," as long as it is restricted to cancer or terminal patients.
"I don't think Kentuckians want to go to something as lax or broad and general as California," where medical marijuana can be administered for virtually any condition, she said.
But not everyone sees much distinction.
"In my mind, there is no such thing as medical marijuana. There's marijuana," said state Rep. Robert Benvenuti, R-Lexington. "The question ism could it, in certain situations, be used as medicine? There's a very defined process for bringing a drug to market, and it doesn't involve state legislators; it involves the FDA and clinical trials. ... The conversation ought to be with the FDA. Why are state legislators effectively circumventing the process we have for bringing a drug to the market?"
Benvenuti said Colorado experienced a 114 percent increase in marijuana-related traffic fatalities from 2006 to 2011, when marijuana was legal only for medical purposes.
Medical marijuana advocates often cite Dr. Sanjay Gupta's CNN report, "Weed," as evidence that doctors agree with their cause, but many medical professionals remain skeptical. On Thursday, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry announced that it opposed dispensing medical marijuana to adolescents.
"Early use of marijuana in young adults may result in detrimental long-term side effects, including impaired developmental processes that could lead to lower intelligence, increased risk for suicide, as well as a multitude of mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, anger, moodiness, and psychosis," the group said in a statement.
Still, public momentum appears to be building for medical marijuana, especially cannabidiol, which even Benvenuti spoke about favorably.
"The bottom line is this: that oil has been the subject of clinical trials, and if that can benefit, I think it could have a chance of passing," Benvenuti said.