Kentucky Governor ‘Actively Considering’ Marijuana Pardons After Biden’s Federal Action, Urging People To Apply For Relief
The governor of Kentucky said on Thursday that he’s “actively considering” possible marijuana clemency actions the state can take following President Joe Biden’s pardon announcement last week—and he’s directed a review of state-level cannabis cases to inform future steps.
In the interim, he’s encouraging people who’ve been convicted over marijuana alone to apply for a pardon.
During a press briefing, Gov. Andy Beshear (D) said that he had “no idea” that the president was planning to issue the mass pardon for people who’ve committed federal cannabis possession offenses and urge governors to follow suit—but the state administration has “taken the last seven days to go over what it means federally and then to look at the correlating state statutes.”
As part of that process, the governor said that he’s asked the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts to conduct an analysis to determine how many Kentuckians have misdemeanor marijuana charges on their records and the possible impact of pardons.
Beshear said that he’s continuing to advocate for medical cannabis legalization in the state, but he also recognizes the importance of providing relief to those who’ve been criminalized over marijuana and he’s “trying to be thoughtful and get out all the pieces” about how to facilitate that in alignment with Biden’s request.
“We will take a very close look at [clemency] as we further analyze our ability to move towards legalization of medical cannabis, as well as this request on simple possession,” he said.
He did caveat that pardons don’t have the same impact as expungements; a pardon is formal forgiveness for the offense, whereas an expungement wipes a person’s record clean. But he said that people should still take advantage of the existing system that allows them to submit a pardon application, particularly if they’ve been convicted over misdemeanor marijuana violations.
“I’m just trying to set out the context that things are a little different here in Kentucky. But, nonetheless, some people may have a hard time getting a job because of a misdemeanor, simple possession conviction,” he said. “That is something that can get expunged. And I also wanted to make sure I got out there for those that are advocating for the difference between a pardon and an expungement and what people might want to be looking at.”
Beshear isn’t the only governor who’s taken steps to explore cannabis clemency actions since Biden’s pardon proclamation. And advocates have stressed the need for state-level reform given that the vast majority of marijuana cases are prosecuted in states.
Meanwhile, the governor recently released a report from a medical marijuana advisory committee that he formed in June, and he said late last month that he would be taking their findings into account as he continues to consider executive actions for reform.
On Thursday, he cited the findings of a non-scientific poll that the Team Kentucky Medical Cannabis Advisory Committee conducted online, which showed that 99 percent of the 3,539 respondents believe that medical cannabis should be legalized.
The committee’s report also determined that while the governor many be able to enact some reforms unilaterally, most of its recommendations to provide patients with medical cannabis access “would require legislative action”—a problem given some leading lawmakers’ opposition to moving ahead.
In April, the governor previewed plans to advance the issue of medical marijuana administratively, criticizing the Senate for failing to heed the will of voters and for “obstructing” reform by refusing to even give a hearing to a House-passed bill this year.
Beshear has made several recent comments about the possibility of taking executive action on cannabis policy, but with a House-passed medical marijuana legalization bill dead after the end of the legislative session, he’s expressed openness to administrative action.
A medical cannabis legalization bill from Rep. Jason Nemes (R) that passed the House this year did not get a required Senate reading ahead of a legislative deadline to advance this session, but there were some who had held out hope that its provisions could have been attached to separate legislation before time ran out on the session.
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That was some wishful thinking, especially in light of remarks from Senate leadership challenging or outright opposing the idea of passing medical marijuana reform this year.
Senate Floor Leader Damon Thayer (R) steadfastly opposes the broader medical cannabis policy change, having warned that it’s a fast-track to full legalization. He said in March that the House-passed medical marijuana legislation had no chance of passing this session and it’s “done for the year.”
“I know my constituents are for it,” Thayer, who owns a whiskey distillery, said during a televised panel in January. “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.”
Democratic leaders from both chambers, meanwhile, said in January that legalizing medical marijuana would be a top legislative priority for this year’s session. And in the spirit, Senate Minority Floor Leader Morgan McGarvey (D) and two other colleagues filed their own legalization measures in February.
The legislation was dubbed LETT’s Grow, an acronym built of the bills’ main components: Legalizing sales, expunging crimes, treatment through medical use and taxing of adult-use sales.
For his part, Nemes filed an earlier medical legalization bill in 2020 that soundly passed the House but later died in the Senate without a vote amid the early part of the coronavirus pandemic. He reintroduced the legislation for the 2021 session, but it did not advance.
Nemes has continually expressed confidence that the reform legislation would advance through the legislature if only leadership had the “courage” to put it to a vote.
While Beshear has said that his focus would be on getting medical cannabis enacted this year, he said he also supported legislation introduced by Rep. Nima Kulkarni (D) in November that would simply 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.
The governor also voiced support for broader legalization late last year, saying that it’s “time we joined so many other states in doing the right thing.” He added that Kentucky farmers would be well positioned to grow and sell cannabis to other states.
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