50 States

50 States: Kentucky

By Jon Young

50 States: Kentucky

Medical: CBD-oil in clinical trials only
Recreational: No
Decriminalized: No

December 11, 2018: Andy Beshear, the state Attorney General and a 2019 gubernatorial candidate, says it is time for Kentucky residents to vote on medical cannabis. "It still remains to be seen whether that legalization would have an impact on the opioid crisis and the drug epidemic," said the Louisville-born Democrat, "but I think it's time for people to vote on medicinal marijuana." The Beshear family name is strong in the Bluegrass State as Andy's dad Steve previously served as a state congressman, attorney general and two-term governor. Likewise, support for legalizing medical cannabis has been high for years, with a 2013 Kentucky Health Issues poll registering 78 percent support. 

What's Past Is Prologue

“There is unequivocal medical evidence… that there are benefits for those with cancer and epilepsy,” said Republican Governor Matt Bevin, according to the Washington Post. “It should be prescribed like any other prescription drug.”

Governor Bevin said this in 2015 during the race for governor in which the usual party-line stances on cannabis were reversed. His opponent, Democrat Jack Conway, said the following: “I don’t want to hear from some hipsters out in Hawaii saying Kentucky needs medical marijuana. Because, if you have medical marijuana, there’s going to be more of it. Chances are there will be more accidents on our roads by young kids because there’s more of it. If we need it, the medical community has to come convince me… And I haven’t heard from any of them.”

Hawaiian hipsters weren’t necessary to pass a law in 2014 that legalized cannabidiol (CBD), the non-psychoactive element of cannabis, in trials conducted by doctors at the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville. Still, no provisions were passed to create a legal path for production and distribution within the state. This passage came after the 2013 Kentucky Health Issues Poll that found that 78 percent of those polled supported legalization of medical marijuana (MMJ).  

While 2015 failed to see any change in cannabis policy in Kentucky, two more bills are on the docket in 2016. One would legalize medical cannabis, the other would legalize recreational.

The Cannabis Freedom Act, sponsored by Senator Perry Clark (D-Louisville), draws strongly from Colorado’s Amendment 64. If passed, the Cannabis Freedom Act would legalize recreational cannabis, decriminalize unauthorized production and public consumption, as well as place an excise tax on the production and sale of cannabis.

“Originally what inspired me was a group of retired Teamsters,” Senator Clark said. The Teamsters knew that using cannabis was a cheaper alternative to the costly prescription painkillers they needed, he said, according to the Bowling Green Daily News. “They didn’t want to be criminalized for something that shouldn’t have been criminalized in the first place.”

Taking note of the $8 to $11 million dollars per month that Colorado generates in revenue from taxing cannabis, the act would create a funded program called Kentucky Responsible Cannabis Use that would distribute revenues to the Department of Education, the Office of Drug Control Policy, the Law Enforcement Council and the General Fund, according to Senator Clark.

“There are 90 years of lies and distortions that say that cannabis is an evil plant,” the Senator said. “My bill is a bill to start an adult discussion on cannabis.”

While Senator Clark’s bill may be too big of a leap for Kentucky’s conservative lawmakers, he hopes it will at least pave the way for a less comprehensive but still much-needed medical marijuana bill sponsored by former U.S. Representative Mike Ward.

“It’s time,” Ward said, according to the Courier Journal. “This is absolutely something that is going to happen in this country and this state.”

Ward’s support for legalizing cannabis has been longstanding. His brother Alexander died of AIDS in 1992 and used cannabis to help stimulate his appetite.

"It's about allowing people the opportunity to use something that millions are already legally doing,”  Ward told the Lexington Kentucky News. “It's time to bring them out of the shadows."

For now, possessing a small amount of cannabis in Kentucky could land you 45 days in jail and up to $250 in fines. More than eight ounces, which is automatically considered intent to distribute, could get you a year in jail and $500 in fines. But with the support of several state lawmakers, including the current governor, Matt Bevin, who said he would sign a medical marijuana bill, Kentucky may prove to be the first state in the South to legalize medical marijuana, paving the way for full legalization.

Photo credit: Unsplash.  

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