A top Republican Kentucky senator says he knows that his constituents support legalizing medical marijuana—but he won’t vote for it because he fears it will lead to recreational legalization. The senator, who profits from sales of another recreational substance as the owner of a bourbon distillery, said people can go ahead and try to vote him out if they’re upset about it.
Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer (R) was asked about the issue during a panel discussion with other legislators on 2022 legislative priorities that was hosted by Kentucky Educational Television (KET) on Monday.
Prompted with polling that shows the state’s voters strongly back medical cannabis, Thayer acknowledged that the policy “does enjoy broad support in Kentucky. I’m just not for it.”
“Are you hearing from your constituents that they want it to be considered?” the moderator asked.
“I’ve been hearing about it for years. I know my constituents are for it,” Thayer said. “But this is a republic, and they elect us to go to Frankfort and make decisions on their behalf—and if they don’t like it, they can take it out on me in the next election.”
Listen to the conversation over medical marijuana policy, starting around 49:59 into the video below:
It’s a brazen statement from an elected official, effectively telling the people he represents that he knows better than them and then daring them to unseat him if they don’t like his position.
The GOP leader did say that there may be the votes to advance reform legislation like a medical marijuana bill from Rep. Jason Nemes (R) that soundly passed the House in 2020 and has continued to be workshopped.
Nemes “has been working hard to improve his bill. He’s told me a little bit about it,” Thayer said. “I’m just not going to be for it. That doesn’t mean others won’t and that we won’t have the votes to pass it. Right now, I don’t really see the energy for it.”
“Everybody gets to decide on their own what they’re for and what they’re against in our caucus, and I’m not going to try to persuade them one way or the other on that issue,” he said.
The reason for Thayer’s opposition is somewhat ironic. The senator said he thinks medical cannabis is “a slippery slope for recreational marijuana.” But he doesn’t seem to have a problem with other, arguably more dangerous, recreational products. The senator owns a whiskey distillery.
In fact, a biography on the “Kentucky Senator” liquor brand’s website proudly notes that Thayer is the only senator to have twice won “The 100 Proof Award,” which is “the highest honor that the Bourbon industry gives to elected officials who promote and protect Kentucky’s home spirit.”
Also in Monday’s KET forum, House Speaker Pro Tempore David Meade (R) said he is “on the fence” about medical cannabis.
“It depends on how it is tailored and how tight it is,” he said. “My fear is the same as Senator Thayer’s, is that he’s going to lead to some type of recreational environment.”
In any case, Kentucky Democratic leaders said at a briefing on Monday that legalizing medical marijuana is one of their top priorities for the upcoming 2022 legislative session.
“Another thing enjoys widespread support among Kentuckians—and is just long overdue—is commonsense cannabis laws,” Senate Minority Leader Morgan McGarvey (D) said. “We must go ahead and get medical marijuana passed in Kentucky this session.”
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Last month, Gov. Andy Beshear (D) said medical marijuana is “the future,” and part of that future should involve letting farmers grow cannabis to sell to other states. He also expressed openness to broader legislation that would allow adults 21 and older to grow and possess cannabis without having a medical reason for it.
“This is the future. It’s where things are going,” he said of medical marijuana. “It’s time we joined so many other states in doing the right thing.”
Beshear, who called on lawmakers to pass the reform during a State of the Commonwealth last year, said that “it is past time” to legalize cannabis for medical use and that the plant “can provide some relief for folks that would otherwise turn to more damaging substances.”
While the governor has said that his focus will be on getting medical cannabis enacted in the coming legislative session, he also talked about broader legislation introduced by Rep. Nima Kulkarni (D) in November would prevent people from being incarcerated over marijuana for any use, saying he’s in favor of that policy.
Kulkarni’s bill would legalize the possession and personal cultivation of cannabis, but it doesn’t provide a regulatory framework for commercial sales.
Nemes, the Republican sponsor of a medical marijuana bill, said in October that he made multiple revisions to the legislation to scale it back and add restrictions to garner more support from colleagues—and he said he’s confident it would pass if legislative leaders had the “courage” to simply allow a vote on it.
After passing the House in 2020, the bill later died in the Senate without a vote amid the early part of the coronavirus pandemic. He reintroduced the legislation last January for the 2021 session but it did not advance in that session. Now he’s working to build support for a new version for 2022.