The Kentucky General Assembly made history last week. For the first time ever a bill to legalize marijuana for medical use advanced when, on a nine to five vote, HB 350 cleared the House Health and Welfare Committee.
Also last week, the Senate Health and Welfare Committee approved SB 124 with only one no vote, to allow certain seizure patients to use an oil derived from hemp and marijuana.
■ Agriculture Commissioner and likely gubernatorial candidate James Comer has made legalizing industrial hemp his cause célèbre, joined by U.S. Sens. Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell and others. Comer announced plans for pilot hemp research projects shortly after the new federal farm bill became law, allowing them to establish hemp research programs for the first time in decades.
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■ In a recent poll, 52 percent of Kentucky voters said they are ready to legalize medical marijuana.
■ In a poll last fall, 58 percent of Americans favored legalizing marijuana, 10 percent more than a year earlier and almost five times the number in 1969.
Things are changing rapidly. Kentucky's leaders can decide to bring up the rear, grudgingly considering the implications of legalizing marijuana only when forced by external events.
Or they can, and should, lead the way with an unflinching, unbiased examination of the future of marijuana — long grown by hundreds, as the chart here shows, used by tens of thousands and taxed by none — in Kentucky.
This doesn't mean marijuana should be in every pharmacy or liquor store. But it does mean that Kentucky's leading illegal crop is moving closer to the legitimate market throughout the U.S. and the world.
And that means it's time for the General Assembly to commission a careful, dispassionate, well-researched look at how the business of marijuana — for medicinal or recreational use — would affect Kentucky.
The only other option is to allow this important public-policy debate to be driven by lobbyists representing those who want to profit by it or special-interest groups selling a vision of the evils or miracles of marijuana.
These are uncharted waters, with little experience to draw from. Some of the areas to investigate include:
■ Financial implications. Legalization would reduce the enormous resources now dedicated to policing marijuana but add regulatory and other costs.
Early results in Colorado indicate licensing fees and taxes could generate significant revenue, but it's too early to tell how the economics will net out.
■ Regulatory structure. What entity would license and regulate growers, processors, retailers and exporters? Would the number of each be restricted? Would an individual be allowed to hold more than one license?
Would licenses require local approval; could cities impose their own taxes? What marijuana-derived products would be legalized?
■ Federal law. Marijuana is currently illegal, although the states have so far been given leeway. How would that affect state legalization?
■ Societal issues: Kentucky is plagued by drug abuse. How would we estimate the impact of legalized marijuana on drug dependence and the associated social and economic costs?
It's unlikely a bill will pass this year to legalize medicinal marijuana. But this issue won't go away, as the poll results indicate.
Kentucky leaders must set aside their fears and prejudices to begin a rational investigation of the role this Kentucky crop will play in our future.