Politics & Government

Medical marijuana approved by Kentucky House panel. More legislative hurdles remain.

The House Judiciary Committee overwhelmingly approved a bill late Wednesday that would legalize the sale of medical marijuana in Kentucky through state-licensed dispensaries. But with only five days left in the 2019 legislative session, sponsors say they’re racing the clock.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Maybe it’s not probable, but it’s not over ‘till the fat lady sings,” said state Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville, co-sponsor of House Bill 136.

“We’re going to try to push it onto the House floor, we’re going to try to push it all the way through both chambers,” Nemes said. “If we can’t get it all the way, then we’re going into the interim with this momentum behind us, and we’ll be back again next year.”

State Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville LRC Public Information

The House Judiciary Committee voted 16-to-1 to approve the bill, with one “pass” vote.

The bill would allow Kentucky doctors to prescribe marijuana to their patients when they believed it was an appropriate treatment for conditions including chronic pain, nausea, HIV/AIDS, Crohn’s disease and epilepsy. An amended version of the bill introduced at the committee hearing would prohibit smoking marijuana but would allow other forms of consumption, such as edibles, oils and pills.

All of the marijuana used as medicine would have to be grown and processed in Kentucky — “Kentucky Proud,” Nemes joked with reporters later — and the bill would establish a system of state licensing for farmers, processors, dispensers and safety testers. The Kentucky Department of Alcoholic Beverage and Cannabis Control would regulate the system.

Thirty-three states have legalized medical marijuana since California led the way in 1996. Kentucky should not continue to outlaw a natural drug that could help the state’s estimated 40,000 to 60,000 people living in chronic pain because of various health problems, the bill’s sponsors told the committee.

“This is for the people who have not been able to be treated by traditional medicine,” said state Rep. Diane St. Onge, R-Fort Wright. “This bill is solely a medical marijuana bill. It is not recreational in nature at all.”

Just getting a committee vote took two months of intense lobbying and a few compromises, given the concerns some lawmakers have about marijuana as a “gateway drug,” the sponsors said. Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, is among those who has expressed skepticism that marijuana has any proven medical value.

One such compromise: The sponsors dropped language from the original bill that would have allowed card-carrying medical marijuana patients to grow their own plants. St. Onge said she believed “homegrown” was important so poor Kentuckians or those living in rural areas, far from dispensaries, could have access to the drug.

But some lawmakers were uncomfortable with authorizing people to grow marijuana in their homes. Instead, the amended bill will steer much of the money from a 12 percent excise tax into a fund that will be used to subsidize purchasing costs for indigent patients, St. Onge said.

The amended bill also makes clear there cannot be a sales tax on medical marijuana, Nemes said. The excise tax should be just enough to cover the regulatory costs of the system and the indigent patient fund, he said. People who insist that taxing medical marijuana is a great way to raise revenue for the state are wrong, he added.

“Medical marijuana is not going to be a boondoggle,” Nemes said. “We don’t want it to be a boondoggle. Because if it is, it will be on the backs of sick people.”

The committee heard from several Kentuckians with health problems who pleaded for legalized access to marijuana, including Cassie Everett of Louisville, who has epilepsy. Everett showed lawmakers the bulging bag of prescription medicine she must take to deal with her seizures. Her neurologist has recommended marijuana, as have friends in epilepsy support groups, but it’s illegal in Kentucky, she said.

“I honestly just want a better option,” Everett said. “I would like to have the option without breaking the law.”

John Cheves is a government accountability reporter at the Lexington Herald-Leader. He joined the newspaper in 1997 and previously worked in its Washington and Frankfort bureaus and covered the courthouse beat.
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