The Kentucky Senate approved a bill on Thursday to legalize medical marijuana in the state—a historic first in the chamber of the conservative legislature.
The Senate passed the legislation from Sen. Stephen West (R) in a 26-11 vote on the last possible day of the session to advance bills to the other chamber.
The House has approved similar proposals in prior sessions only to see them stall without action on the Senate side.
This development comes two days after the Senate Licensing & Occupations Committee passed the measure.
“This bill has been discussed in this chamber for many years,” West told colleagues, saying that his journey to supporting the issue began when he met a quadriplegic constituent who could benefit from medical cannabis.
“I’m now convinced that medical marijuana, provided to our citizens through a tightly-regulated system, can provide some important relief to our constituents,” he said. “It’s time for Kentucky to join the other 37 states in the United States that allow medical marijuana as an option for their citizens.”
Here’s what SB 47 would accomplish as amended:
Patients with recommendations from doctors or advanced nurse practitioners could qualify to use cannabis if they have cancer, severe pain, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, muscle spasms or spasticity, chronic nausea or cyclical vomiting, post-traumatic stress disorder or any other medical condition or disease which the Kentucky Center for Cannabis deems appropriate.
Smoking marijuana would be prohibited, but patients could still access raw cannabis for vaporization.
Home cultivation would not be allowed.
Patients could possess a 30-day supply of cannabis in their residence and a 10-day supply on their person.
Patient registration would only last up to 60 days, and the initial visit must be in person.
There would be a 35 percent THC cap on flower marijuana products and 70 percent cap for concentrates. Edibles could not exceed 10 milligrams per serving.
Medical cannabis would be exempt from sales and excise taxes.
The Cabinet for Health and Family Services would be charged with overseeing the program, including setting regulations and issuing business licenses.
License categories include three tiers of cultivators as well as producers, processors, safety compliance facilities and dispensaries.
Local governments could opt out of allowing cannabis businesses to operate, but citizens could petition to have their municipalities opt back in.
A nine-member Board of Physicians and Advisors would be created consisting of seven physicians and two advanced nurse practitioners.
Regulations would need to be finalized by January 1, 2024.
The state Board of Physicians and State Board of Nursing would be responsible for certifying practitioners to recommend cannabis.
Ahead of the floor vote, senators adopted a committee substitute as well as an amendment from the bill sponsor that explicitly preserves the right of employers to determine if a worker is impaired on the job with behavioral assessments and drug testing. If the the employer concludes that the assessments show evidence of on-duty impairment, the “burden of proving non-impairment shall shift to the employee to refute the findings.”
The House passed a medical cannabis legalization bill last year, and in a prior session, but they died with out action in the Senate. That’s why advocates started on the Senate side this session.
One obstacle for the reform has been Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer (R), who’s steadfastly opposed broad medical cannabis policy reform, arguing that it’s a fast-track to full adult-use legalization.
More recently, however, he said that he would not stand in the way if the bill had enough support to pass. And on Tuesday he voted to support the bill in committee, saying that its “narrowly focused approach” won him over. He also backed the measure on the floor on Thursday.
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) called on the legislature to legalize medical cannabis “this session” during his State of the Commonwealth speech in January, saying that it’s an essential reform for the state to make sure it is “treating people right.”
The speech came after the governor signed a pair of executive orders in November, allowing patients who meet certain criteria to possess up to eight ounces of medical cannabis legally obtained from dispensaries in other states and also regulate the sale of delta-8 THC products.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Ryan Quarles, the state’s current agriculture commissioner, recently said that he’d work with lawmakers to enact medical cannabis legalization within his first year in office if elected.
Advocates have stepped up their efforts to pressure lawmakers to enact reform this session, with groups like Kentucky Moms for Medical Cannabis (KMMC) and Kentucky NORML making their position clear that the issue has stalled for too long in the Bluegrass State.
Last year, the governor released a report from a medical marijuana advisory committee that he formed, and he said in September that he would be taking their findings into account as he continues to consider executive actions for reform.
The governor previewed plans to advance the issue of medical marijuana administratively last year, 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 also voiced support for broader marijuana legalization in 2020, 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.
Last week, the Kentucky House of Representatives passed a bill to regulate the sale of delta-8 THC products.
In January, a lawmaker filed legislation for the 2023 session that would put a marijuana legalization referendum on the ballot for voters to decide on, but it has not advanced.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.