Politics & Government

Kentucky Southern Baptist leader blasts medical marijuana bill

Paul Chitwood, executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.
Paul Chitwood, executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention. Herald-Leader

FRANKFORT — The leader of the state's largest religious organization voiced opposition Tuesday to a proposal in the state legislature that would make it legal for people to use marijuana in Kentucky for medical purposes.

"The very idea of thwarting the authority of the Food and Drug Administration and allowing Kentuckians to smoke marijuana under the guise that it is somehow medically beneficial is absurd," said Paul Chitwood, executive director of the 750,000-member Kentucky Baptist Convention.

"Just because other states have taken this step doesn't mean we should legalize another intoxicant, especially one that has been proven to be the first step toward abusing the hard drugs that are claiming so many lives through overdoes," Chitwood said.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, filed a bill in this year's legislative session that would allow trained doctors to prescribe marijuana to patients for 21 "debilitating medical conditions," ranging from "severe" nausea to post traumatic stress disorder. The state would have a strict oversight system in place to make sure prescriptions were not abused, Stumbo said.

"I understand this is a learning process, but I hope people will listen to the debate before making up their minds," Stumbo said Tuesday in an email. "This is not recreational marijuana; it is medical marijuana, and they should hear the stories from people who say it has benefitted them and their families. My bill is one of the strictest among the states, too; it does not allow smoking, nor does it let individuals grow their own."

Under House Bill 3, marijuana could be consumed as a liquid, pill or vapor that is produced by a method "where combustion of the cannabis does not occur."

Stumbo's 24-page bill, which has been assigned to the House Health and Welfare Committee, would require the state Department for Public Health to operate the program. Prospective patients would have to obtain a diagnosis from a physician and a registration card issued by the state.

Health officials would establish a list of varieties of cannabis to be offered and oversee at least one dispensary in each portion of the state.

Stumbo emphasized that marijuana would be tracked as other prescription drugs through the state prescription drug electronic reporting system. It would remain illegal to use marijuana in schools and prisons, and it would be illegal to "vaporize" marijuana in any public place. Driving under the influence of marijuana would also be illegal.

If approved, the law would be known as the "Gatewood Galbraith Medical Cannabis Act," a nod to the late Lexington attorney and unsuccessful political candidate who was an early advocate of medical marijuana.

State lawmakers have softened their stance toward the cannabis plant in recent years. Last year, the state harvested its first hemp crop in decades and the state legislature approved a bill allowing researchers to experiment with cannabidiol, an oil derived from cannabis that is sometimes used to treat severely epileptic children.

Nearly half of all U.S. states have passed medical marijuana legislation.

"I'd like to believe the prescription requirement in the bill would limit its use, but we have seen in the past how willing wayward doctors have been to hand out prescription narcotics," Chitwood said. "Lawmakers need to see this for what it is: another step in the push by pro-marijuana advocates to legalize marijuana altogether."

Supporters of medical marijuana insist that it can be used effectively to treat symptoms of cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, pain, glaucoma, epilepsy and more. Opponents point out that lots of FDA-approved drugs provide treatment for those ailments, and that marijuana use can damage lungs, immune systems and brains of long-term users.

Chitwood said reviews of prescription data in states that have legalized marijuana for medical purposes show that it's not primarily prescribed for people in intense pain or who are terminally ill.

"What we've seen in other states is that people in final stages of terminal illnesses and fighting pain aren't the ones smoking marijuana," Chitwood said. "These prescriptions appear to be handed out indiscriminately to young people."