Politics & Government

Democrat Adam Edelen calls for decriminalizing marijuana possession in Kentucky

Democrat Edelen talks decriminalizing marijuana possession

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Adam Edelen talks about his proposal to decriminalize the possession of marijuana in Kentucky.
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Democratic gubernatorial candidate Adam Edelen talks about his proposal to decriminalize the possession of marijuana in Kentucky.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Adam Edelen called for eliminating criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana Monday, but stopped short of backing full legalization of recreational marijuana.

Under Edelen’s plan, possession of marijuana would be reduced from a misdemeanor criminal charge to a civil charge, similar to a speeding ticket. People could be charged up to $100 for possessing less than half an ounce of marijuana.

Kentucky would be the 15th state to decriminalize marijuana (10 states have legalized it outright).

“We need modern laws that reflect our modern world and that means that no one should be held in jail for weeks or be forced into a criminal justice system that limits their potential just for having a small bag of marijuana,” Edelen said in a news release. “It’s bad policy and the time has come to change the way we treat marijuana.”

Edelen’s campaign said more than 11,000 Kentuckians were convicted of possession of marijuana last year and pointed to a 2013 study that showed black Kentuckians are six times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.

Eight states decriminalized marijuana before legalizing the drug. When asked if this was a path to get recreational marijuana legalized in Kentucky, Edelen said it could be an incremental step, but that he wanted communities to design their own approach to full legalization.

“The best approach here is to go and do a tiered effort and if we can make decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana work, that facilitates a larger conversation about where to go next,” Edelen said.

All three major Democratic candidates — Edelen, Attorney General Andy Beshear and House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins — have said they support legalizing medicinal marijuana (33 states and the District of Columbia have already done this), but Edelen is the first to support decriminalization.

Beshear’s campaign said he supports a ballot measure for the legalization of medicinal marijuana but stopped short of supporting the decriminalization of marijuana.

“Criminal justice reform is important to Andy, and he thinks that people shouldn’t have to serve jail time just for the possession of small amounts of marijuana,” said Eric Hyers, Beshear’s campaign manager. “Andy is also committed to rooting out the bias and discrimination that exists in our criminal justice system, which leads to disproportionately high incarceration rates for people of color.”

Rocky Adkins said he was open to the idea of decriminalization, but he would need to “work closely with the law enforcement community and others to put together a realistic plan that can actually pass the Kentucky General Assembly.”

“We must work to lower the number of people in our prisons who are there solely because of drugs,” Adkins said. “It’s important that we look at other options, including treatment and rehabilitation, instead of prison time.”

Possession of marijuana is the lowest level of crime — a Class B misdemeanor — and can result in up to 45 days in prison. The penalty rises if the person intends to distribute the marijuana, but a first offense isn’t a felony unless the person is trying to sell more than eight ounces.

Marijuana is often trafficked in 1/8 of an ounce, or about 3.5 grams. A 2016 study from the University of Pennsylvania found that a typical marijuana cigarette (or joint) contains about .32 grams of marijuana.

Marijuana-related policy has had a difficult time advancing in the Republican-led Kentucky legislature. Despite growing support for the issue, an effort to pass a medicinal marijuana bill stalled in the House of Representatives this year.

Edelen said he would win legislative approval for his plan by making the initiative a priority.

“This has the potential to bring together libertarians and liberals, constitutional conservatives and progressives,” Edelen said. “When you have a governor who is willing to lead from the front and go make the case to the public that this is the right thing to do, the legislature is more apt to act.”

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