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Kentucky Governor Explores Executive Action On Medical Marijuana Reform As House-Passed Bill Stalls



A House-passed bill to legalize medical marijuana in Kentucky might be stalled in the Senate in the final days of the legislative session this week, but the governor on Monday reiterated that he’s exploring the possibility of taking executive action to advance reform.

Gov. Andy Beshear (D) first signaled last week that he’s interested in what could be done at the administrative level to provide patients with access to medical cannabis, as it’s become increasingly unlikely that the legislature will act by the time lawmakers adjourn on Thursday.

“I want to see Kentucky finally legalize medical marijuana,” he said during a press briefing on Monday. “When the people overwhelmingly demand it, the only thing keeping it from happening are we don’t have ballot initiatives, and then the legislature right now won’t follow the will of the people.”

Pressed in a follow-up question to elaborate on earlier comments about possible executive actions on the issue, the governor didn’t offer many specifics, saying that while there have been improvements to medical cannabis legislation this session, it hasn’t crossed the finish line and so the administration is going to “look at what legal options are out there” to do something itself.

Beshear spoke generally about convening groups to address the lack of access to cannabis for military veterans, glaucoma patients and those seeking alternatives to opioid-based painkillers.

“I’m going to have our attorneys in the executive branch, as well as others that are interested, look at and explore every option because this is the will of the people,” he said. “I hope that the legislative branch will listen to it. If not, we’re going to explore executive options.”

The governor similarly talked about the need to enact medical cannabis reform at a briefing last Thursday, saying that “its time has certainly come” and that the administration may take steps with respect to promoting cannabis research if that’s what’s holding up the legislature.

The medical cannabis legalization bill from Rep. Jason Nemes (R) that passed the House last month did not get a required Senate reading ahead of a legislative deadline to advance this session, but there are some holding out hope that its provisions could be attached to separate, still-alive legislation before time runs out on the session.

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That may well be wishful thinking, however, especially considering recent remarks from Senate leadership challenging or outright opposing the idea of passing medical marijuana reform this year.

Senate President Robert Stivers (R) recognized that time is running short to advance a bill to legalize medical cannabis in the state, and he said last week that it’s more likely the chamber will advance separate House-passed legislation to create a marijuana research center this session.

Senate Floor Leader Damon Thayer (R), meanwhile, steadfastly opposes the broader medical cannabis policy change, having warned that it’s a fast-track to full legalization. He said last month that the House-passed medical marijuana legislation has 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 will 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 companion legislation—SB 186 and HB 521—is 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 will 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 supports adult-use legalization, saying late last year 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.

A poll released in 2020 found that nine out of 10 Kentucky residents support legalizing medical marijuana, and almost 60 percent say cannabis should be legal under “any circumstances.”

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