FRANKFORT — House Speaker Greg Stumbo says he doesn't expect the legislature to act on his medical-marijuana bill this year, but he wants to start a conversation among lawmakers.
"I support anything that moves the issue forward," Stumbo told the House Health and Welfare Committee on Thursday after presenting House Bill 3, for which he did not request a vote.
"There seems to be this growing national awareness that there is some sort of a benefit, a medical benefit, in certain forms of treatment from this drug, (and) Kentucky needs to be ready to move forward with a responsible piece of legislation," said Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg.
Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana. One year ago, a Bluegrass Poll of registered Kentucky voters found that 52 percent favored "allowing the use of medical marijuana in Kentucky." Thirty-seven percent were opposed, and 12 percent said they weren't sure.
Kentucky's legislature took a step in that direction in 2014. It enacted a law to let hospitals at the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville provide oil derived from marijuana and hemp to children who suffer from certain severe seizures. But Deb McGrath of the Epilepsy Foundation of Kentuckiana told the House panel Thursday that the law hasn't worked. Restrictions by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration discourage UK and its doctors from obtaining the oil. Some Kentucky families are moving to other states to get access to the oil, McGrath said.
"The Epilepsy Foundation believes that an end to seizures should not be decided by your ZIP code," McGrath said.
Stumbo's HB 3 would authorize the Kentucky Department for Public Health to operate a "medical cannabis program," with specially trained doctors prescribing marijuana to patients for treatment of one or more specified conditions, including cancer, drug addiction, Crohn's disease, seizures, glaucoma, chronic pain, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and post-traumatic stress disorder. Patients could not smoke the marijuana; they would take it as a pill, liquid, oil or vapor. Children could participate in the program with the consent of their parents or guardians.
Stumbo told his House colleagues that he opposed the legalization of marijuana for recreational use. His bill would limit patients to a 60-day supply of medicine, and it includes penalties for patients or doctors who engage in illegal drug dealing through the program.
Republicans on the House committee raised several concerns Thursday about Stumbo's proposal.
Rep. Robert Benvenuti, R-Lexington, said medical marijuana had not been tested and brought to market as an accepted medical treatment by federal regulators, so Kentucky medical professionals would not have clear guidance on how to dispense it. For example, Benvenuti asked, how would a pharmacist know the proper dosage and method of delivery for a glaucoma patient?
Pierce Whites, Stumbo's general counsel, said Kentucky would put regulations in place to provide guidance to medical professionals.
"The bill, as I read it, legalizes first," Benvenuti replied. "To me, we're putting the cart before the horse. To my knowledge, that's not been done with any ... drug that we bring to the market as medicine."