Medical cannabis overcomes big obstacle in Kentucky as state Senate votes for legalization

Published 10:23 am Tuesday, March 21, 2023


Kentucky Lantern

A bill to legalize medical marijuana for some Kentuckians who suffer from chronic illnesses overcame a major hurdle Thursday evening, winning  a seal of approval from the state Senate.

Email newsletter signup

Legislation similar to Senate Bill 47 has died in the Senate in previous sessions. However, senators voted 26-11 in favor of the measures with a couple days left in this legislative session for the House to concur.

Sponsored by Sen. Steven West, R-Paris, the bill allows those with a specific list of medical conditions — including  any type or form of cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic, severe, intractable, or debilitating pain —  to qualify for using medical marijuana.

While presenting the bill, which has more than 100 pages, West said medical marijuana is “a very complex issue” and the legislation would be a “work in progress” if passed. He added that he believes the legislation could help Kentuckians in a few ways, including reducing addiction to opioids and providing additional jobs in the state.

“It was never going to be perfect,” West said, “but with passage we’re moving down the road. We’re moving forward.”

A licensing program for growers of marijuana, dispensaries and product consumers would be developed by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services. The legislation would not take effect until 2025. An amendment added by the Senate allows employers to conduct impairment assessments of an employee who has a card showing their qualification for the use of medicinal cannabis.

The House passed bills in 2020 and 2022 to legalize medical marijuana.

Midnight was the deadline for each chamber to pass legislation in order to have time to override a possible gubernatorial veto. However, earlier Thursday, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear signaled that he would sign the bill. He encouraged lawmakers to pick up the bill even if it was on the last days of this legislative session.

“The bill itself I would like to see some changes to,” he said. “There are not enough conditions in it that people may be suffering from that need the assistance of medical marijuana but I will take a start, and certainly it is a start.”

A Beshear executive order that took effect at the start of 2023 set criteria for Kentuckians with certain medical conditions to access medical cannabis in small amounts. He did note Thursday that that was “imperfect” because even those who do qualify under it can have challenges to accessing medical marijuana.

One of the strongest opponents of legalizing medical marijuana, Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, voted yes this time out of “compassion” for those who could be helped by medical marijuana.   

“If you’re a pot smoker and you think that this is going to be the camel’s nose under the tent so you can legally smoke your pot in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, I’m not going to be your guy and I’m never going to be your guy,” Thayer said, “but on behalf of those who suffer and can find some relief I’ve come to this decision.”

Some senators who voted no rose to recognize the continued advocacy for the legislation from people like Eric Crawford, a Mason County resident who’s spoken on the issue in past legislative sessions. Crawford uses a wheelchair because of a car accident in the 1990s.

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said in a floor speech that he was not convinced to legalize medical marijuana after heavily researching the topic and debating it with others. He cast his vote not out of “ill will” but, he said, because he believes the cons outweighed the pros, referring to an earlier comment from West about weighing both sides of the issue.

West’s bill was heard in the Senate Licensing and Occupations Committee earlier this week and received an 8-3 vote.

If the bill becomes law, Kentucky would join 37 states in legalizing medical marijuana.